C.K. Williams

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Peter Stitt (review date Winter 1983)

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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.

—Louis Simpson


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. And the agency which is used to bring about this transformation is what we call style, the author's “manner of saying it.”

At least, this is one way a writer has of proceeding; because the movement it describes is from the multiplicity of experience towards the unity of understanding, we might call it the inductive method. Two of the writers in the present group of five work this way: C. K. Williams and Roland Flint both write from an immersion within a ragged and unpredictable universe; by applying the methods of poetry, they manage to give order to this world, make it comprehensible, remove some of its sting. Two others might be said to move in the opposite direction: Frank Bidart and Jorie Graham seem to begin their writing with a general idea in mind, an idea which is then applied to experience, tested against it, in an attempt to understand the multiplicity of reality. Their method is deductive. Bill Knott, the fifth of these writers, follows yet a third way; for him, style is all—he is willing to change both experience and idea for the sake of a better word.


In C. K. Williams’ fourth book, Tar, it is style that gives the world beauty and love and makes it comprehensible. The setting of these poems is the urban landscape of the northeastern United States; before his discovery of the transforming power of language, the speaker finds it a grimy, grungy, soulless, loveless world: “Slumped on my friend's shoulder, I watch the relentless, wordless misery of the route twenty-two sky / that seems to be filming my face with a grainy oil I keep trying to rub off or in” [emphasis added]. The lines are from “The Gas Station,” the closest thing to an ars poetica in the book. The speaker tells a story from his adolescence, from “before I'd read Nietzsche. Before Kant or Kierkegaard, even before Whitman and Yeats. / I don't think there were three words in my head yet.” In the story which the poem tells, the speaker has been up all night with his friends; among other adventures, they had visited a prostitute who had agreed to “take care of us.” By the end of the poem, the speaker has found at least a few words that might make a difference:

… Maybe the right words were there all along. Complicity. Wonder.
How pure we were then, before Rimbaud, before Blake. Grace. Love. Take care of us. Please.

Besides expressing that disconcerting brand of brotherly love one occasionally encounters on city streets, Williams’ best poems are packed with specific details and concrete images, are vigorous in language, and have a strong narrative flow (thanks to the engaging voice of the man who speaks to us). For example, the opening poem of the volume, called “From My Window,” contains these narrative lines:

A girl in a gym suit jogged by a while ago, some kids passed, playing hooky, I imagine,
And now the paraplegic Vietnam vet who lives in a half-converted warehouse down the block
and the friend who stays with him and seems to help him out come weaving towards me,
their battered wheelchair lurching uncertainly from one edge of the sidewalk to the other.

The rest of the poem centers on these two characters, their relationship, the frustrations which the speaker imagines are felt by the caretaker, the walking friend of the paraplegic. At the end of the poem we see him again, trying to trace a figure eight at night in a vacant lot during a snowstorm: “but the race was lost, his prints were filling faster than he made them.” Finally, “In the morning, nothing: every trace of him effaced, all the field pure white, / its surface glittering, the dawn, glancing from its gaze, oblique, relentless, unadorned.” The speaker is touched by the hopelessness of this man's life; his words express the anonymous and distant affection of the ghetto.

In his best poems, Williams is an observer, the man in the upstairs window looking out at the action, describing it, turning its phrase. In his weaker poems, he forsakes the window in favor of a mirror, the better to analyze himself. I once had a friend who described another friend as “the kind of guy who likes to begin every conversation with the phrase, ‘I'm the kind of guy who … ’” C. K. Williams is similarly addicted, and loves to say things like: “I was at loose ends, and, although I didn't like admitting it, chronically adrift and lonely.” Unfortunately, the poem which is by far the worst in this regard is the longest in the volume; “One of the Muses” is full of passages like this one:

She had come to me … She to me … I know that, I knew it then, however much, at the end,
trying so to hang on to it, to keep something of what by then was nothing, I came to doubt,
to call the memory into question, that futile irreducible of what had happened and stopped happening.

(p. 52)

When he gazes so relentlessly inward, Williams loses one of the most important characteristics of his style—his use of specific details, concrete images. Apparently these are easier for him to find in the world at large than in the recesses of the psyche. Thus this fifteen-page poem, all of which is like the lines I have quoted, is the worst in the book. Happily, it is also an atypical performance. Nearly all the other poems in Tar are like “From My Window” in their use of detail and an outward-looking narrator. And it is for that reason that Tar is Williams’ best book.

Robert McDowell (review date Spring 1984)

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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 here.

Believe this and you must believe, as I do, that all poetry begins with a narrative impulse. That is not to say that all poetry—even all good poetry—is narrative. The popular contemporary essay-in-verse demonstrates that the above types can be recombined so that narrative vanishes altogether. Like other strategies, this is sometimes successful, sometimes not. Recognition of this recombinant impulse, more than anything else, provides the key to unlock what is happening in contemporary poetry. It allows us to reject the application to poetry of erroneous popular labels like formlessness and chaos. It encourages us to see the work itself. Informed scrutiny of an individual text will enable a reader to make judgments, but the reader must be aware of the larger historical context in which the text inevitably exists. Awareness of this context sweeps the reader far beyond snap judgments and personal bias and enhances appreciation. …

More than anyone writing today, Bidart legitimizes the notion of a visual prosody. His poems are proof that lines on the page create visual rhythms accurately conveying the sense of hesitations in speech and the gestures and expressions accompanying them. This poetry is meant for the eye as well as for the ear. It enlarges and enhances understanding of our world.

I can reverse my concluding statement about Bidart to express my only reservation about Tar by C. K. Williams. His long, long lines are not so much prosodically relentless as relentlessly long. In other words, the reader of Tar must be prepared to deal with an acute sensation of visual monotony. However, he ought to be prepared to overcome it by trusting his ear.

C. K. Williams succeeds in compressing and depicting the convoluted nature of conversation, the rambling qualities of letters to intimate friends. Decked out in elegant repetitions and the adjectival necklaces of Robert Lowell, these poems yearn for peace of mind—the state of grace before paradox, doubt, and loss of faith started working, keeping one up all night, every night. In “My Mother's Lips,” the speaker remembers his mother's habit of lip-synching his words as he spoke to her.

when I was saying something to her, something important, she would move her lips as I was speaking
so that she seemed to be saying under her breath the very words I was saying as I was saying them.
Or, even more disconcertingly—wildly so now that my puberty had erupted—before I said them.
When I was smaller, I must just have assumed that she was omniscient. Why not?
She knew everything else—when I was tired, or lying; she know I was ill before I did.
I may even have thought—how could it not have come into my mind?—that she caused what I said.

Coming back to the present, to the fact of his own parenthood, the speaker recognizes “the edge of anxiety in it, the wanting to bring you along out of the silence, / the compulsion to lift you again from those blank caverns of namelessness we encase.” His paranoia is transformed, becoming the ability to recognize a graceful and compassionate gesture. This is the moment Williams is after, and his talent in rendering it sets him apart from the standard fare of incomplete details, shoddy transitions and sensational assertions. This poet is always in service to his subjects. Through fierce observation he becomes the story he is telling, allowing it gradually to reveal itself through him.


  1. The Nature of Narrative, Oxford University Press.

David Lehman (review date Summer 1985)

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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?

In one important respect, the contemporary critic's task has been simplified by contemporary poetic trends. T. S. Eliot stated the case in “Reflections on Vers Libre”: “When the comforting echo of rhyme is removed, success or failure in the choice of words, in the sentence structure, in the order, is at once more apparent. Rhyme removed, the poet is at once held up to the standards of prose. Rhyme removed, much ethereal music leaps up from the word, music which has hitherto chirped unnoticed in the expanse of prose. Any rhyme forbidden, many Shagpats were unwigged.”

A number of our poets do indeed insist that we hold them up to the standards of prose. Some among them are so emphatically committed to a prosaic principle that they seem intent on rewriting the verse of the past as prose—without, however, justifying the right margin. “Meredith is a prose Browning, and so is Browning,” wrote Oscar Wilde, but the same remark applied to, say, Robert Bly would have its wit overwhelmed by its Wahrheit. …

To be fair, not all practitioners of the prosaic principle operate with so arrogant a notion of the purviews of contemporary parlance. C. K. Williams, in Tar, wisely puts his versified prose at the service of experiences for which it is a suitable measure. Here's the opening of “My Mother's Lips”:

Until I asked her to please stop doing it and was astonished to find that she not only could
but from the moment I asked her in fact would stop doing it, my mother, all through my childhood,
when I was saying something to her, something important, would move her lips as I was speaking
so that she seemed to be saying under her breath the very words I was saying as I was saying them.

If there is something both charming and genuine about these lines, and I think there is, it follows from the impassioned urgency effected by the rhythmic repetitions—so that we feel a pleasurable rush when we get to “the very words I was saying as I was saying them.” This is, again to quote Miss Moore (quoting somebody else this time), “prose with a sort of heightened consciousness.”

Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, we find not only a place for the genuine but a relentless sameness of tone that can prove deadening when the aim is straight narrative. Where James Schuyler, in the long, prosey lines of his justly praised “Morning of the Poem,” freely espouses, digresses, and leaps from incident to reflection, Williams gives the impression of plodding solemnly ahead in a straight line. We suspect that the means are too elaborate for the ends—and that the moment of revelation is needlessly postponed—in such a poem as “Combat.”

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

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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 confront, as lovingly as possible, the alien world, the situations and feelings of others.

His first volume, Lies (1969), is the most inward and obscure of his collections. With strange, terrifying metaphors and a sometimes thunderous but colloquial voice, Williams explores the bestial and subconscious impulses within himself. The twisted world of these surrealistic fables conveys the “moral terror” Williams experiences witnessing the evil and destructive urges of all humankind. With I Am the Bitter Name (1972), Williams opens his poetry more fully and explicitly to immediate political events. Disjunctive and largely short-lined like the poems of Lies, these lyrics rage bitterly against the insanity of recent historical events.

The poems in With Ignorance (1977) differ strikingly from those collected earlier. Prosaic, casual speech and a generously inclusive manner replace the telegraphic cries of the preceding volumes. Long lines permit the relaxed unfolding of personal memories and dialogic meditations. The discursiveness of With Ignorance and of the succeeding collection, Tar (1983), allows Williams space to explore the ethical and intellectual complexities surrounding the questions he poses. “Are we commended to each other to alleviate our terror of solitude and annihilation and that's all?” “[H]ow much of my anxiety is always for myself[?]” These questions are voiced directly; others, about the origins of brutality, the dangers of nostalgia, the possibilities of transcendence, the powers of love, implicitly drive the poems. Only partially analytic and propositional, Williams's questioning often takes the form of narrative and description. He interrogates a situation by recalling or imagining its unfolding in ample graphic detail.

The subjects of his narratives are often saddening, sometimes hideous or distasteful: a boy overhearing drunken neighbors fight, a paraplegic Vietnam veteran losing his pants as he falls from his wheelchair, a dog with an intestinal blockage shrieking as he tries to defecate. They inhabit a run-down urban setting of boarded tenements and glass-littered parks, where drunks lounge on the sidewalks and long-time losers brag in bars. Sometimes they are stranded in even more desolate country towns, America's “great, naked wastes of wrack and spill.” While Williams's stance is often the observer's, he manages to watch compassionately without distancing himself as outsider. He does not hold himself above any degradation. Yet he does not attempt to claim others’ experience as his own. Avoiding appropriations that would be emotionally manipulative or intellectually suspect, Williams's portraits of people who are impoverished, oppressed, broken, or nearly broken do not pretend to speak from within that deprivation. Rather, the poems suggest that seeing is itself a crucial political act in our crowded world, for what we refuse to see we will not attempt to change.

Although the people Williams portrays are partially crippled by holding in cries of anguish, they nonetheless embody small, essential triumphs of the human spirit—and this qualified triumph is the emphasis of Williams's recent work. The paraplegic vet's companion determinedly tracks the figure of infinity even if the falling snow inevitably obliterates that image; a has-been grocer continues to make his bed and sweep his condemned apartment; models posing for pornographic photos are imagined sharing a moment of tenderness. Thus Williams's description of Jim Daniels's poetic achievement could just as well describe his own: “He has captured and enacted the blind and sad anguish of souls so trapped that they have ceased to know how to speak even to themselves, but he has never lost sight of the remarkable dignity, humor, and spiritual resilience which at the end are what redeems our passion and our hope.”

In addition to the four volumes of poetry that had appeared before this interview took place, Williams has published a translation of Sophocles’ Women of Trachis (1978) as part of the Greek Tragedy in New Translations project edited by the late William Arrowsmith for Oxford University Press and The Lark. The Thrush. The Starling. (1983), in lovely limited edition from Burning Deck, which contains twenty-four “poems from Issa.” Williams's most recent collection of poems, Flesh and Blood, won the 1987 National Book Critics Circle Award. His translation of Euripides’ The Bacchae is forthcoming.

This interview was conducted on November 21, 1985, in conjunction with a reading supported by the Wisconsin Union Directorate Ideas and Issues Committee and by the English Department of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Our thanks to them and to Professor Ron Wallace for arrangements that made the interview possible.

[Keller:] Since you are here in Madison partly because you were the final judge for this year's Brittingham poetry prize, I'll start with questions prompted by your introduction to the book you selected. In introducing Jim Daniels's Places/Everyone, you praise the volume's political engagement. In Latin America and countries in extreme political turmoil, poets’ voices have real political power. Do they have any here?

[Williams:] I'm not sure that poets in other countries have that much political power either, or not much direct power. In places like Latin America and Eastern Europe, where there's a clear social emergency, then the recourse to poetry becomes more common. In America, since the Civil War anyway, one of the prevalent political tactics has been for those in power to pretend that there is no emergency, even when there clearly is. What we're going through in America now, with a realignment of class, of economic expectation, with a continuing unemployment and poverty problem, would in most places be considered a sociopolitical emergency, but here we regard it as a wave in the economic cycle. I don't think, though, that poetry has much to offer in a programmatic sense. Whether poetry has a particular political agenda isn't nearly as important as the fact that it promulgates by its very essence basic human decency, basic values, and a shared vision of community. When there is an emergency that people feel, or are allowed to feel, is real, then they tend to go looking for poetry, for the solaces it offers and for the heightened moral consciousness it presupposes. That's what happened during the Vietnam war, when first the college kids and then many other people realized that poetry could speak, and was already speaking, for them.

While it's obviously valuable, it can be awkward for someone in the comfortable middle class to be proclaiming emergency or trying to speak for the destitute and oppressed. Sometimes in your work you bring to the fore a sense of the guilt experienced by the privileged and by the survivors. That's the case in, say, “The Beginning of April” or in some of your poems referring to the Nazi Holocaust. Do poems help you deal with that discomfort of being relatively free and strong and prosperous?

Yes. That's an excellent question. I think I'm more radically political than I ever was in terms of the intensity of feeling I have about political issues now. At the same time, I have less sense of what a political program would be that would avoid the various shoals all the existing political systems tend to run aground on. In the sixties and the seventies when there seemed to be the possibility for some activism—for a way to really act, to go into the street … All the illusions we had then, or maybe they weren't illusions, maybe they were just lost hopes … I suffered a great deal then from the feeling that I wasn't doing enough. The real activists would say, “Put your body on the line,” and I had no wish to do that. I went to the demonstrations and the readings, but I didn't feel comfortable with that sort of activism, and I still don't. I feel less lively guilt about it now, partly because going to the streets would be like running around in circles, and secondly, because I'm a little more certain of the function that poetry—what I do spend all my time at—does fulfill. I'm more sure that there's a task for the poet that doesn't involve putting down poetry and grabbing a gun or grabbing the lecturn or whatever you would grab. But the discomfort you speak of is still one of the main emotions I feel just living in the middle class in America, especially living in New York. If I ever leave New York, it will be because of the tensions I feel, the discrepancy between my life and the life that I have to see around me. And “I have to see” is the part that I often write about, because that's the middle class emotion: watching people who are condemned to live the way they do and feeling there's nothing you can do about it, especially at such a reactionary time as we're going through now.

What political writers do you particularly admire?

I've been studying a book by Robert Bellah and his four co-authors, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. It's a wonderful book. Over the last five years I've studied a lot of economics just to try to figure how the world works—nothing systematic, unfortunately. I've read a lot of Albert Hirschman, who is a great economist; a book of his, Shifting Involvements: Private Interest and Public Action, contains very good studies of how people move politically, what makes them stay with an idea or an institution or abandon it. And now I'm reading more—I'm starting Tocqueville who I somehow never read and some of the people who Bellah and his people referred to, notably Alasdair MacIntyre.

What about political poets or people who have written political poems?

During the sixties I did most of my reading in that. There isn't all that much in America, although there's quite a bit from other countries. No, that's not fair to say—I think for instance of Whitman, who was a big influence on all American poets. When I first read him he was a major political influence on me. Yeats, who is probably my aesthetic model as far as making a poem, to me is a very important political poet. During the sixties I read a lot of the Latin Americans and Spaniards, as most poets here did: Neruda, Vallejo, Lorca, Hernández, Machado. And also during that period all the Eastern European poets, particularly the Polish poets, who were a very strong influence not just on me but on the several generations of postwar poets writing then. Milosz did a book called Postwar Polish Poetry which was like a secret text only the poets knew about, and through that we got into a lot of the Eastern European poets who have to live in that state of emergency we spoke of before, and who tend to write out of a much more direct sense of being in history and who have a much more direct access to history. They feel little compunction about locating themselves in historical situations in their poems. There's something in the American political character that makes us feel as though we're being hubristic when we speak that way: again, except in emergencies, we tend to be shy about making the first person the real enactor of history. Even somebody like Lowell who wrote a lot about history—and wrote wonderfully—except in a very few poems wrote almost as a historian rather than as a poet who was the legitimate embodiment of history.

What about Ginsberg? He's obviously in the Whitman tradition, and when I was reading your early works, the forward rush of some of the poems with their accumulation of surrealistic images and their black humor often made me think of early Ginsberg.

I admire Howl, I admire Kaddish, but I was never influenced by him. The concept of energy intrigues me. I remember once coming across a book of Charles Olson's, Reading at Berkeley. I was really impressed with the force of the energy of Olson's language, and I remember at the time brooding over that, trying to find out how he had access to that kind of power. If there was anybody from that school that I did get some of that from, it would have been Olson rather than Ginsberg.

You mentioned Lowell. That makes me think of the confessional and of your poem “The Gas Station.” The speaker in that poem asks some difficult questions about the confessional mode: “what am I, doing this, telling this, on her, on myself, / hammering it down, cementing it, sealing it in, but a machine?” The poem goes on to mention Augustine, apparently an allusion to the Confessions. Is a confessional writer a machine? And how do you place yourself in relation to that scene?

It's funny, because when I wrote that poem I really didn't think of it at all in that sense. Yet it obviously does refer rather overtly to confessionalism, about which I have mixed feelings. I was a friend of Anne Sexton's. She helped me get my first book published and was a general source of support for me. But I was never a great fan of the confessional stance as such. When you come down to it, there are really only three confessional poets of any note: Sexton, Plath, and Lowell.

You don't count Berryman?

I don't think so—somewhat, but really only in the “Dream Songs,” and there he wasn't so much a confessional poet as a narcissistic poet. The great “Dream Songs,” the first seventy-seven, were hardly at all confessional except in very splendid, broad, abstract ways, but then when he kept going on the poems, they became quite self-indulgent. For me the confessional presents a great quandary because Lowell over the last few years—or Bishop and then Lowell—in some sense has been my technical model, to the degree that I've had to start pulling away from him somewhat. But his unscrupulous use of his own and other people's experience really troubles me. I recently read some letters that were written to him—I think it was Bishop who wrote them—telling him that he really didn't have to do that and shouldn't, and I would agree.1 There are two issues to being a poet: there's the issue of making or trying to make great poems (and certainly Lowell did that) and there's the issue of being a poet (which is very mysterious for a poet) and the fact that other people can value your very existence. It's something you never believe in. You can never believe in it about yourself, but at the same time you know that when you fall in love with a poem there is something about the poet, too, that you love. Last week I was with Galway [Kinnell] and we were talking about Rilke. He said he had made the mistake of reading a biography of Rilke and Rilke had been somewhat diminished in his eyes. With Lowell, then, there is that question: was he in fact attending adequately to that part of the poet's function, or was he misusing it in order to produce his poems? The paradox is that you can write a poem about anything; ideally that's what a voice is, it's being able to deal with anything. So he was dealing with what was his truth, but

You mention Bishop. I did think very much of her work when reading Tar because one of the ways you achieve a talky quality there is through lots of interruptions—digressions and questions and parenthetical remarks—a strategy typical of Bishop.

She was a big influence on Tar. For about half the time I was writing it, I was studying her work very closely. But I don't think it was primarily her talkiness that influenced me. I certainly was affected by her subtle use of language rhythms, but I think that it was her purity of vision that was more important to me: the absolute rightness of her figures and the precision of her details. Also, the real analytic rigor in her work: she does it so deftly that you hardly notice it. I was with a well-known poet the other night who said he doesn't particularly care for her. I was trying to read some poems to convince him—I read that wonderful epistemological section of “In the Waiting Room”—but he didn't really hear her, and I understood because I didn't either for a long time. I felt just what my friend did: here's somebody using ordinary language to talk about ordinary things and what's the big deal? Then one day I was in the Boston Public Library with my son, there was a pile of paperback books on a table, and I picked up—I think it was Geography III—and just about fell over. I started reading and kept reading for three or four years.

Something else you and she have in common is your skill as visual artists. I've seen your drawings in American Poetry Review and then of course on the cover of the Issa book. Did you ever think of becoming a visual artist?

Too late. There are times I have regretted not being a visual artist—because of the money, for one thing, and the involvement of the body. Poetry is so much a mental activity that when things are bad you feel as though your mind is just going to crack. You could be like one of H. G. Wells's time creatures, this little white slug with a brain. And painters aren't that. They work with their hands, their eyes, their whole bodies. Actually when I started out writing poetry I never had an inkling I would have done something so unlikely. All my friends were architects, and if I had said something even more unlikely, “I'm going to be a painter,” they would have laughed me out of the room. “What do you mean you're going to be a painter; you have to have some skill,” but I had as much, probably more skill, actually, as a painter than as a poet.

Let's talk about your four volumes. There seems to be a dramatic split between the first two and the second two. Would you comment on whether you think that's true, and if so, what the essence of that development is?

It is true. I have talked a lot about this. I did stop and start again for very personal reasons. I didn't stop for long, though it seemed at the time long enough. I stopped and I started, and I started somehow with this new voice that allowed me to go on. I think if I hadn't found a new voice, I would have stopped writing poetry.

One of the big changes that I see is in your approach to syntax, and I'm curious about that. In some of the early short-lined poems, syntax almost seems to be in control; it's the forward drive of the syntax that carries the poem. But then in the later volumes you're controlling syntax and using it to burrow into your subject. Was that a conscious strategy?

I didn't think of it in terms of syntax; I thought of it in terms of extended intellectual units. The long line came first. I didn't really know what I was doing when I started with the long line. I just started writing it and felt that it was right. What I felt intuitively was that I could deal with larger units of meaning than I had. Once you begin to work with larger units of meaning, then syntax does become a greater issue because the organization of the elements of language becomes more important. It also then becomes one of the technical felicities that you try to enact in the poetry.

It's not only your lines that are getting longer—your poems seem to be growing longer as well. If you look, for instance, at the long poems that end each of your volumes, “One of the Muses” is by far the longest yet.

Though my next book [Flesh and Blood] is going to be all eight-line poems.

Oh, interesting! Even so, I want to ask you about “One of the Muses.” Most of the reviewers commented on how different it was from the rest of the volume, how abstract it was in comparison to the very grounded specificity, the physical nitty-gritty of the other poems. How did you come to write “One of the Muses” that way?

I was trying to deal with a very fugitive emotional and mental state that required that kind of analytic approach. The whole poem is the analysis of one emotion, in a sense, which is the emotion of loss. I haven't really ever thought of it in secondary terms this way, but I would say it's the emotion of loss, the problem of how we recover from loss. What the poem says is that there's some sort of rupture that allows us to recover from loss. I guess that trying to redeem or account for or come to terms with that sort of experience required a different kind of attack, and although the poem is much longer than the others, in terms of experience it really isn't. It's just that the experience took more time to get at. I wasn't sure whether to put it last in the book. It isn't meant to be last the way the Anne Frank poem in the first book is meant to be last because it's really a culmination, as is “In the Heart of the Beast” in the second book. In fact, all the first three books have last poems that are more extensive workings out of the style, although they weren't necessarily written last. “One of the Muses” was different in that it allowed me to let my style try things it hadn't yet.

Yet many of your works deal with some sort of fugitive emotional state, and in them you found some nonabstract embodiment. You have lines about that in one of the poems in With Ignorance: “Sometimes the universe inside us can assume the aspect of places we've been / so that instead of emotions we see trees we knew or touched or a path, / and instead of the face of a thought, there'll be an unmade bed, a car nosing from an alley” [“Bread”]. It seems to me that many of your poems that use memory are really giving some physical aspect to a fleeting emotion or to some transitory psychological state.

I think that's true, but I actually wrote the poems upside-down from that: I used memory as the skeleton in which the events, “the face of the thoughts,” could occur. So in a way the memories are incidental; they're just devices. When the poems are called “memory poems” I always feel a little squeamish because I realize I could have written them in another way.

What is the relation between your titles and your poems? Especially in your early work, sometimes I wasn't able to make a connection.

That's what Anne Sexton said too. Titles for poems just come to me. I think in the first few books I was working so much with disjunction that sometimes what would please me would just be a title that clearly seemed to have nothing to do with the poem but that I knew really added on an unconscious level to the resonance of the poem.

I want to ask you about the comic element in your work, and maybe I can ground this in “Soldiers,” the poem that you sent for the broadside.2 When I first read the poem, Ron Wallace asked me what I thought and I said, “I think it's spooky,” and he said, “Oh, I think it's funny.” So we discussed where we got our views. Ron said, “He takes this almost Jamesian nuance and blows it up until it's completely ridiculous.” And Ron was—understandably—chuckling over lines like “My … hungry mouth hefts the morsels of its sustenance over its firmament.” But the lines Ron was chortling over were lines I found chilling because a supposed presentness and hereness is presented in terms of such abstraction that at the end when the speaker is saying, “I'm here,” there's really a denial of being here. It's as if the only way to be sane is not to be here.

I'd like you to comment first on that poem and then more generally on the comic elements in your work.

In “Soldiers,” I meant to do both. I did mean the elements of the poem to be funny, but at the same time, what the poem is dealing with is, as you say, chilling. The perceptions in the poem are very tense, almost unbearably so, but the mind in the poem deals so desperately with the evident sadnesses there that the absurdity of the images and the metaphors, and the comic element, became for me the most real embodiment of the lengths consciousness will go to to retain “normality” in the face of anguish. As for the comic in general, it's a tricky thing to talk about. People have mentioned to me that they find elements in the poems funny, but I've never really systematically tried to put humor into them. The way I seem to come up with what later can appear funny is more through a sort of exuberance, a delight in what the poem can in the most unlikely way do. It's always nice that it's noticed, but it feels as though I shouldn't talk about it too much: I might spook the beast.

I think humor has been there all along in your work, but I'm curious if it plays into the shift between the two pairs of volumes. My sense is that there is almost a shift in your view of human nature, or more accurately, a shift in emphasis: the murderousness of humanity is more a central preoccupation in the early books. That doesn't disappear—it's certainly still there in “The Last Deaths,” say, the one with your daughter watching television. But there seems to be a shift. The epitome of the change might be a poem like “Floor,” the pornographic post card poem, where the emphasis is on these unaccountable tendernesses and wondrous transcendencies. Where does your humor fit into that?

I don't connect those with humor. I think there's a lot of humor in the first two books. I think your perception is right about the general trend of the books, but I don't think that would be where the comic would be implicated.

One other thing in your development I want to ask about is translation. I think your Women of Trachis is very powerful. Do you have anything to say about the affinities between your own world view and Sophocles’ in that play?

When I was doing the translation I became fascinated with the fact that the Women of Trachis is really about civilization, about what [Norbert] Elias called “the civilizing process”—the moment at which we become civilized. Herakles is the pivotal figure; he's from the world of precivilization, but he's the agent of civilization. He's the civilizer, but he never really quite civilizes himself. I've always been fascinated with that phenomenon as it occurs in the individual. Freud calls it the relation between the id and the ego or the id and the superego. One of the constant themes of my adult consciousness has been the struggle between instinct and reason, if you would call it reason and if you'd call it instinct. I'm not sure either term in fact is adequate. In a way the play is the enactment of the same drama. The other thing that interested me was that when I was a kid my father used to tell me bedtime stories when I was sick, and my favorites were the labors of Hercules, and so when I began to do the play, it had a double meaning for me.

In discussing the choruses in the “Translator's Comments” you make a distinction between music with its organic connectedness on the one hand and poetry with its intellectual meaning on the other. Do you remember that? What do you see as the role of music in your own work?

Those are two different questions. I was speaking about actual music, the fact that the Greek choruses were actually sung to music. I've said somewhere how unfortunate it is that the only term we have when we speak of what happens in poetry is “music.” It all becomes very confusing. The splendor of real music is its disconnection from human experience, the fact that it is a totally human artifice, while the music of poetry has to do just with its connectedness to our real situation and plight.

In the poetic music of a play like that, the various metrical shifts would have been significant for a classical audience, I assume—various conventions would be associated with particular meters. As a modern writer, you can't rely on that. What do you feel are substitutes? Does that seem like an impoverishment to you?

No, there is a different set of necessities, that's all. When you really get into trying to translate anything, you realize it's a pretty hopeless project. With something as grand as a Greek tragedy, the attempt can seem pretty absurd. At the same time, you do it. You find rigors of syntax and rhythm to try to make an equivalent for the formal demands of the original. Greek verse is based on vowel length, ours on stress patterns—the best you can do is approximate. Art is really always a working out of various necessities, conventions, forms, whatever, and the freedoms of consciousness: you just try to keep enough necessities going so that you're not oversimplifying.

In your commentary you mention the constraints of the translator's cultural and literary milieu, and this would certainly be one of them. What else were you particularly aware of as a constraint for you?

That part doesn't have so much to do with constraint. It's almost a sense of squeamishness because you realize that you are really rewriting history. What happens in our minds in reading the play isn't what happened in the minds of the Greeks. So every aesthetic decision you make about the intensity of a word, the intensity of a moment, the intensity of a scene and the reasons for it is an alteration of what the Greeks would have experienced. I'm reading Robert Darnton, a great historian, and that kind of shift is one of the things he takes off from. Clifford Geertz, who is another favorite of mine, an anthropologist, talks about the same thing, about how we have to do that. Darnton uses as an example the interpretation of fairy tales. He shows how Fromm and Bettelheim interpret “Little Red Riding Hood,” and then he goes back to the original and realizes that they're interpreting a “Little Red Riding Hood” that wasn't even there. And so in a sense, although they're pretending to say something about the universal and timeless in the human soul, they're in fact wrong about the very people who generated the story. When you go to something like Greek tragedy you take that to heart. What are you doing here, daring to touch cultural monuments? But at the same time you know you're giving something to your own culture. Translation is a very shifty activity anyway, a little bit like grave robbing. The truth of the matter, though, is that you end up with something, and hopefully it gets to the museum, but you have ransacked and violated something too.

Where did you get your interest in translating Issa?

I had loved the haiku for a long time. I was reading a translation of some and felt, “These are so silly.” I realized these people are really ransacking: they're ransacking both Japanese and English because just trying to make a poem in English in seventeen syllables is absurd, because a syllable means something different in Japanese. So I said, “Well, I'll really make these into English poems,” and I got really going in it. Actually, I did them a long time before they were published, and I was never sure whether to publish them. I did a great many while I was writing With Ignorance.

Do you know Japanese at all?

No, I just looked at existing translations. When I did the Greek things I didn't have Greek either. I worked with a classicist and I would get all the other versions I could, even a good French version. But with this I was just having fun. That's why I call them “Poems from Issa.” I don't even call them versions. They're not versions. They're poems that take an image or an epiphany of Issa's and try to bring it into being in American poetry.

How do you think being a translator has affected the rest of your writing?

I suppose not much after all, except that being so deeply exposed to anything has to affect you somehow.

What about your generation? You talked earlier about your generation reading all sorts of people you wouldn't have been reading if they weren't being translated. But do you feel that the activity of translation, which has been so popular, has affected your poetic generation?

Poets have always been intrigued with translation, with bringing things across cultural boundaries. It's also a very, very complex subject. When I was at Boston University, there was a professors’ seminar in translation that I became very active in; they brought up all sorts of people who were speculating and theorizing about translating. I think the most interesting thing I realized is that there seem to be periods in cultures in which the literature suddenly turns and begins looking for its poetry in other languages. It happened in England of course during the Renaissance, and it happened to us during the sixties. It must have something to do with culture in crisis, with the feeling that the resources of your own society have been used up, somehow. I remember that there was a good period when I very rarely read any poems that had originally been written in English. Everything I was learning was coming from other poetries.

It's easy to see the fifties as a very stifled time in poetry. Do you think translation was a way to get out of a kind of deadened modernism?

I don't know about that. I didn't really start writing until near the end of the fifties, so it would be hard for me to say if it was as bad as they say. I was really by myself in the beginning, doing it on my own. I didn't go to graduate school or anything, and I was groping along by myself. My main poets were Rilke and Yeats; I didn't know any other poets and for some reason I didn't feel compelled to read the poetry that was around, until I began to meet other poets. Whether the fifties were all that bad a time for poetry is another question. There were certainly some great poems written then. Maybe moving from one stylistic period to another entails rejecting much of the poetry that came before. Maybe it's just that we're always filtering out the bad poetry in our vision of a period, and the combination of the shift toward looser forms in the sixties and that filtering process made everything more dramatic.

The word God appears in your work frequently.

Not so much now.

OK. But I was bewildered, as I read your work, by what this God was.

When I was working on my first two books, I felt as though much poetry had a sort of conceptual politeness about it that seemed to me to omit a lot of human experience. Of course this is one of those egomaniacal things a young poet can say to himself—“Poetry is such and such”—not even knowing half the poetry in the world yet. But at any rate I did feel very intensely that the way we actually experience concepts like God, soul, death has a much rawer tone and edge to it than we generally acknowledge. So in those first books I very consciously tried to make a God who would be the kind of God children experience, very simply and directly, with a kind of primitiveness about it. Adults perhaps can never re-experience God that way, as simply Him, It, She, in a very direct sensual-mental apprehension, but that's what I was trying for. There was another God in those poems, the God of theodicy, the allower or even perpetrator of evil. I think that God had a lot to do with my becoming aware of what the Holocaust had been. In the best sense, the God I conceived of was descended from some of Buber's ideas. God as something the collective human soul experiences, God as what happens between our psyches, but I think that the theodicy issue more or less overwhelmed that part of it. I've written a poem about all this recently.

W. H. Auden has said that it's the poet's role to maintain the sacredness of language. Does that mean anything to you?

Yes, of course, that's what being a poet is, finally. You don't think that when you start out. It's the kind of thing that someone who is hard into middle age would come to, because when you're young you think poetry has much more to do with experience, and language is just the means you use to deal with experience. By the time you have written a lot, you realize that really poetry is at base language enacting itself. You are the medium of enactment, which is both humbling and exalting; I guess that's what any experience of sacredness is—the sense that you are being acted through rather than just acting yourself.

When you were judging the Brittingham contest, why did you choose Daniels's book, or, to make the question more general, what do you look for in new writing?

This book was an anomaly; it's a very odd book. It doesn't really fit into any categories. The culling process at Wisconsin had brought the selection down to about a dozen books, and there were some very good books among those. There were some that had individual poems that were as good as or better than anything in Jim's book, and when I first read the book I almost dismissed it—it seemed so simple-minded and so clunky. But I found it was the book I kept coming back to to read with genuine interest. I have not been systematic at all in my poetry contest judging. I did one contest in which I really wanted to pick someone whose poetry wasn't like mine so I could overcome my subjective limitations, and that wasn't such a good idea finally. I don't think in that case I really picked the best book. So it changes; you just try to be responsible to whatever you're feeling about poetry and young poets at that moment. It's such a difficult thing to be a young poet anyway—even if everything works out great, it's difficult. But with Jim's book I was glad and also very relieved at how many people loved it; everybody who saw it really liked it, and I thought, “Well, it's not only me.”

About the contemporary scene more generally, do you think there's an avant-garde today?

I think I've become a little dubious about the whole notion of an avant-garde. We've somehow become used to assuming that what happened around 1910, with Pound, Eliot, dada, et cetera, is the model of the way cultural history happens, but I'm beginning to think that the moment of the birth of modernism had more to do with historical phenomena than cultural. The world had changed radically over the decades before that; people were realizing it had, but we were still using intellectual equipment that came from the eighteenth century, and I think that it had become clear that the age of revolution and industrial capitalism, besides the development of modern physics and the working out of the implications of Darwin, demanded a different set of cultural forms. The artists were the first—as they often are, or always—to sense the cultural and emotional implications of it all. Once you accept that that kind of world-revising moment is the model for the normal evolution of art, though, you begin to create disruptions and disjunctions in cultural history that are really grounded in nothing but marketing, and you get all sorts of people simply proposing themselves as the avant-garde, with not much substance to their claim either culturally or aesthetically. The Language poets, for instance, go to great theoretical lengths to certify themselves as avant-garde, but when you actually read their work, their connection to any kind of cultural necessity seems really quite retrograde. Maybe I'm wrong, but I just don't see any other instances of anything approaching an avant-garde other than the birth of modernism. The romantic poets responded to the French Revolution with a new kind of poetry, but it wasn't nearly so radical in its formal shift as we like to think, and if what they were doing was dismissed at first, that dismissal really had to do with attempting to deny the consciousness they were enacting; the critics hadn't moved into the new age with them yet.

Do you think being in a postnuclear age has meant any sort of dramatic shift in consciousness?

God, it has to. I don't know that I could trace it, though. Certainly we suffer from it terribly. When you look at what's happening in New York in painting, with these young brutal painters, I suppose it could be traced to that—almost the rush to get something done before extinction. The apparently rushed quality of the paint, the way the paint is put on the canvas, is an expression of something that intense. Whether it's happening in poetry or not I don't know. Or whether it's happening anywhere I don't know. It might be that humanity has finally come up with something so enormous that all you can do is repress it; how can you possibly deal with your own extinction? And when we do try, like that television movie The Day After, things become absurd, and trivial. I seem to have contradicted what I said a moment ago, haven't I?

It seems to me that a lot of your work carries an end-of-the-world sense that may be associated with the Nazi Holocaust as much as a nuclear holocaust, but it's very strong. I wonder whether the poet reflecting on that is doing anything different for the reader than the poet traditionally confronting mortality—or whether that's even possible.

That's a very interesting way to look at it. I don't know. I think that I write under this image, a compelling image. I have a poem in my new book [Flesh and Blood] called “The Dream” about a dream that I had when I was a kid about the atomic bomb, and I'm very tempted to title my next book The Dream, even though it's only one of 150 poems, just because you can say that in a sense we are living a dream, the dream of our own survival. Writers generally are weird about manuscripts, about unpublished work. I realized one day, “My God, I've got thirty-five poems here and I don't have copies of them.” And then I had this image of an atomic bomb coming and blowing all my poetry up. My God, what an absurd thought, what repression!

That's the level at which we can conceive it.

Exactly. But there has to be some enormous cultural repression, especially when you have a madman in the White House. Clearly you have madmen in both countries, but no sane person would say, “Let's have Star Wars. Let's add a whole new layer of weapons onto the weapons that are already going to kill us.”

You are a poet very much associated with the urban scene, and of course ours is a nation becoming increasingly urban. Do you see that as something that is going to become more predominant in poetry? And what do you think are the limitations of that? Or the strengths of it?

The strengths of it are obvious: the city is where our culture happens. For good or ill, mostly ill, although that's not always so. I don't really know that there are any limitations. The urban poet always can leave and go to the land. On the other hand, the poets who have stayed on the land, the poets who do write of the land, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry—I can't make a list—obviously do bring us news that is still crucial for us. With Berry the news can be rather dire: that the land is not what it used to be, that we are consuming the land just as quickly as we consume people. But for me, obviously, the urban matrix is absolutely necessary. When I was a kid I was a nature freak; I wanted to be a cowboy and I wanted to live out of the city. We lived in Newark and I was always trying to convince my parents to move to the country; obviously they couldn't. The switch in my attitude was so radical that sometimes I wonder what happened—I think maybe I should try to go back to do a little more of the country again, but somehow it never happens. And my wife is even more urban than I am. She's Parisian, and she doesn't have any truck with anything but fleeting visits to “nature.”

It's not as if you turn to nature for some sort of celebratory vision or comfort in your poems.

No, I think the age of nature romanticism is over for us. Nature pantheism, natural mysticism, whatever. Except for isolated individuals—Snyder would be one. At the same time, though, what people such as Snyder and Berry do for us is to remind us that there are basic human necessities that can't be violated, that we are a part of nature, however much havoc we wreak with it. To go back to where we started, it does seem as though we're in a time of great emergency in many ways, in almost every way, and to speak with any kind of false nostalgia about nature would be the ultimate joke we could play on ourselves.


  1. A letter Elizabeth Bishop wrote to Lowell protesting his use of Elizabeth Hardwick's letters in The Dolphin appears in Ian Hamilton, Robert Lowell: A Biography (New York: Random, 1982) 422–23.

  2. For Williams's reading at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Silver Buckle Press produced a broadside of this uncollected poem.

Ashley Brown (review date Winter 1989)

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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 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)

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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 first
place is hunger is silence a cold
mathematical thumb-mark and
every time I hurt I didn't mean it
and when the shame quit closing its little mouth locking
its feet down melting what happened
was that they didn't care they ticked
a night off they counted
me up they threw my name back. …

The emphasis is on voice, its flat affect set off by lurid details, and thereby wrenching rather than winning from the reader a fascinated attention. The example of W. S. Merwin's The Lice, say, is behind Williams's method, though Merwin's apocalyptic strain always sounded more hieratic and elegant. In contrast with Merwin, Williams was always more interested in society than the soul, and with the underside of a society or a psyche—its pain and confusion, its hopeless mess of wounds and absences. And as he puts it in a later poem, “sometimes when you go to speak about life it's as though your mouth's full of nails.” His tone is angry, keening, the violence of his material matched by a violence in the spill-over lines themselves. I Am the Bitter Name is essentially a continuation of Lies, though the Vietnam War, at home and abroad, erects a kind of barbed wire fence that runs through the book and into “In the Heart of the Beast,” the long final poem whose subtitle alone, “May 1970: Cambodia, Kent State, Jackson State,” predicts its anguished accusations.

The pertinent question is: how does all this read today? Undoubtedly because of their very timeliness these early poems seemed more striking then than now, and stronger in effect than in conception. But Williams's struggle with style continued. “The problem in one's own poems,” he once told an interviewer, “is to find ways to get more of the world in.” That meant a more inclusive style, more rhetorically flexible. He hit upon the loping, overlapping Whitmanian line that has since become a kind of trademark. At one point he refers to these later poems as “dithyrambs,” and that's a proper term for their sprawling, passionate, elevated manner. Though his subjects remain the sex and violence, despair and horror in everyday life, Williams writes about them in an “elevated” (though never sublime) way, from the mediated distance that reflection and a vivid, though sometimes overheated, even fussy rhetoric demand, as in “The Race of the Flood”:

Or this. Messages, codes; the way he, the next one, the way he pins them all over himself,
on his clothes, on his skin, and then walks through the street like a signpost, a billboard;
the way there are words to his wife and words to his kids, words even to god so our lord
is over his eyes and our father over his belly and the history of madness and history of cliffs;
the way there's no room now, the way every word in the world has stuck to the skin
and is used up now, and his eyes move, roll, spin up to the top of his head
the way the eyes of those fish who try to see god or the lid of the water roll, like dice,
so me, within me again: I cover myself with my own scrawl and wait in the shallow,
I face the shallow and wait like a fin and I ripple the membrane of scrawl like water. …

Williams himself realizes that “style is both self-sustaining and self-consuming,” that “you can become trapped in a style, so that you're fulfilling the demands of a style, rather than the style working for you.” Reading page after page of this can be as wearying as reading alexandrines; and the structure of the poems grows a little formulaic—something in the world juxtaposed with something in his life, the outer with the inner, objective with subjective. Still, their Proustian method, whereby sensations recall memories and image invokes image, works through the hardbitten, downbeat nature of his material towards genuine enlightenment. “One's moral structures tended to be air unless you grounded them in real events,” he says in the poem “Combat.” The “real events” mostly involve stories (and narrative itself is a moral structure), and stories about women, children, cripples, teenagers—all of them projections of the vulnerable or victimized yearnings of the poet himself. And, by moral extension, of the reader. Williams's extraordinary patience with his material, and his canny way of taking the reader into his confidence, including him in his anger and sympathy, succeeds in creating powerful effects. Where his early work is content merely to shock, the later poems use shock in order to jolt the reader, to keep him off-guard while the poet then sets about recomposing the “moral structure” of things. I'm not convinced jolting is the best way to accomplish this; it is too self-conscious and too often sensationalistic. But there is no denying Williams's superior talent for sending an electric current through his reader. Reading this book has reminded me of just how many of his poems have never left my mind after my first stunned encounter with them. They stay in the mind not because they shock (they can only do that once) but because they continue to haunt, and because his way of speaking—hovering, tender, overbearing—sounds like nothing else in American poetry today.

Michael Leddy (review date Autumn 1989)

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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 “Yours” captures the uneasy commerce of poet and reader, as Williams declares his desire to write poems for “everyone” while calling his sincerity into question: “you are a wonder of soul spirit intelligence one for every one.”

With Ignorance and Tar are much more rewarding volumes. They represent a departure, as Williams attends to particular people, scenes, and memories: a paralyzed veteran, a city storefront, an adolescent sexual encounter. Form becomes newly significant: these poems are virtually all narratives, employing an extremely long line (up to thirty syllables) that accommodate hesitation, clarification, and digression. It is a pleasure to follow a sentence through four or five such lines, casting tangents in several directions before coming to rest, as in the following poem about a child waking.

Though I say nothing, don't move, gradually, far down within, he, or rather not he yet,
something, a presence, an element of being, becomes aware of me: there begins a subtle
very gentle alteration in the structure of the face, or maybe less than that, more elusive,
as though the soft distortions of sleep-warmth radiating from his face and flesh,
those essentially unreal mirages in the air between us, were modifying, dissipating.

(“Waking Jed”)

Williams indeed writes in these later two volumes with ignorance, with uncertainty, finding no easy lessons in the narratives he presents. Several of the poems in which he observes city life from an apartment window are exceptionally rich in their play upon the tenuous distinction between spectator and participant (reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window) and in the ways they implicate the poet in the dramas he witnesses.

Sherod Santos (review date 1990)

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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 activity of the mind, a correlation of eye and ear, heart and intellect, that is completely new and yet strangely familiar, as though the humdrum world were suddenly infused with a wildly invigorated energy. More often than not, the feel of these poems is like a ride on a roller coaster: Once you get on, you don't get off, and the thrill comes from the slow, tantalizing rise to a height from which you plunge in a blinding swirl of syntactic reversals, rhythmic shifts, dialectical turns, all leading headlong to some dizzying, epiphanic brink:

They're at that stage where so much desire streams between them, so much frank need and want,
so much absorption in the other and the self and the self-admiring entity and unity they make—
her mouth so full, breast so lifted, head thrown back so far in her laughter at his laughter,
he so solid, planted, oaky, firm, so resonantly factual in the headiness of being craved so,
she almost wreathed upon him as they intertwine again, touch again, cheek, lip, shoulder, brow,
every glance moving toward the sexual, every glance away soaring back in flame into the sexual—
that just to watch them is to feel again that hitching in the groin, that filling of the heart,
the old, sore heart, the battered, foundered, faithful heart, snorting again, stamping in its stall.

(“Love: Beginnings”)

That almost manic insistence to William's line gives ordinary moments a stupefying psychological power, an Orphic music. With a microscopic eye that notch by notch closes in on its subject, he magnifies the book's innumerable vignettes through a mass of adjectives, adverbs, and nouns, through pell-mell pacing and the studied uses of repetition: “so much … so much … so much …,” she “so full … so lifted … so far …,” “every glance moving …,” “every glance away …,” etc. And like a photographic blowup, this process of magnification tests reality's surfaces—“he so solid, planted, oaky, firm,” “she almost wreathed upon him as they intertwine”—until they finally yield what lies beneath: in this case, a heady brew of vanity and sex. Interestingly enough, since Williams lays claim to a deep social conscience, it is not in the arena of human behavior, but in that underworld of motive and impulse that he most often discovers the ineradicable stain of our common identity: “just to watch them is to feel again that hitching in the groin, that filling of the heart, / the old, sore heart, the battered, foundered, faithful heart, snorting again, stamping in its stall.”

This poem contains all the signature elements of Williams's mature style: the extended, refracted line; the perceptive sense tuned like an aerial to the daily round; the explicit gloss on some commonplace scene; the universal story suddenly revealed underpinning the individual moment. While this latter preoccupation haunts his work from the very start, in the first two books those verbal leaps to significance—couched as they are in a style ill-suited to discourse or analysis—rarely sound like anything more than didactic dreams. As Williams said in an interview in 1986, “I like Yeats's remark about his having realized that everything he ever thought and did was already implicit in him when he was eighteen, that all he had to do was to work it all out” (The Missouri Review, volume IX, no. 1, p. 151). To grasp the magnitude of labor required for Williams “to work it all out,” one need only browse through the first two books in his watershed collection, Poems, 1963–1983: Lies (1969) and I Am the Bitter Name (1972).


In Lies, Williams takes as his distinctive gesture the hyped-up rhetorical question, often angrily addressed to an angry God, on subjects ranging from moral decay to world hunger, and couched in the lingo of a corrupt sexual appetite. The central images—ash, debris, rot, spillage—all serve as generalized indictments of the sleazy spirit of the modern age. The following, spoken by a garrulous, if fiendish, trash collector, typifies that impulse:

What do they do with kidneys and toes
in hospitals? And where did your old dog go
who peed on the rug and growled?
They are at my house now, and what grinds
in your wife's teeth while she sleeps
is mine. She is chewing
on embryos, on the eyes of your lover,
on your phone book and the empty glass
you left in the kitchen. And in your body,
the one who died there and rots
secretly in the fingers of your spirit,
she is hauling his genitals out, basket
after basket
and mangling all of it in the crusher.

(from “Trash”)

From the details in the poem we may infer that the “you” is a male, probably suburban, middle-class American (that arch-villain of the sixties), whose inner life “rots / secretly,” and whose inadequacies and apparent infidelities have transformed his wife, if only in her dreams, into a monstrous, cannibalistic machine. Pitted against them, the trash collector functions as the nightmare voice of the subconscious world, the one who both hoards and exposes our vilest cast-off selves. But something childish, something even cartoonlike and funny negates the squalor of this grisly scene. The details are almost extravagantly gratuitous (especially the “basket / after basket” of “his genitals”—wouldn't the normal measure of his anatomy be enough?). And since we never really learn why the “you” has sunk to such depravities, we can't help wondering: Is it truly as bad as all that?

Images of mangled man and woman-as-ball-breaker come up again and again in Lies. Sex is never invoked without grotesquerie and violence, the sexual drive is never playful or procreative but always destructive, the sexual organs are never erotic but always horrifying and tumescent: “genitals swell like tumors” and “men / … ooze their penises out like snail / feet” (“Saint Sex”); people think of “raw spots at the root / of the penis and the pimple that grows / inwards” (“Three Seasons and a Gorilla”), and so on. I suppose we're urged to trust that the speaker's nausea symptomatically registers his disgust with the world (North America in particular), though we're never told what precise circumstances provoke that reaction—America's war in Vietnam? Mississippi's vicious repression of voter registration drives? Los Angeles's police action in Watts? Since Williams rarely ventures beyond generalities, we're left with a despair unpleasantly summoned for the sake of the poem, and a poem divorced from history—a response, one suspects, largely at odds with his intentions.

In I Am the Bitter Name the grotesque grows less obsessive, though scabrous elements still linger: “if you told him god lived in his own penis / he'd bite into it” (“They Warned Him Then They Threw Him Away”); “I am nailed in like a root / meat” (“What Must I Do To Be Lost”), etc. But a broader subject matter enters the poems, as does some clearer conception of the issues at stake: Money, commerce, and government stand in as worldly, oppressive forces; the poor, the alienated, the disenfranchised as their hapless victims. Passing references invoke the poor of Biafra, Bengal, Harlem, and Rio, and a gnarled list of crimes threads its way through the poems, as if the list were a noose and we, the reader-subject-accused, were slowly closed in its cinch.

Perhaps inevitably, questions of personal responsibility begin to intrude, though even here excesses test a reader's credulity. The sexual guilt so obsessive in Lies now serves as a disturbing emblem of Williams's feelings of political impotence and frustration. “The Beginning of April,” for example, attempts to link the worlds of the private and public self in yet another moment of animated self-arousal, when the poet feels “I could smash bricks … / or screw / until I was half out of my mind”:

the only trouble
jesus the only trouble
is I keep thinking about a kid I saw starving on television
last night from biafra he was unbearably fragile
his stomach puffed up arms and legs sticks eyes distorted
what if I touched somebody like that when I was this way?

This mawkish self-accusation serves as a moral equivalent to the first book's debasement of the sexual passions. The central proposition—how can he be full of lust when African children are starving?—not only figures as a dubious piece of introspection, but grossly exploits the Biafran child. His conclusion strikes me as equally embarrassing: “I promise I won't feel myself like this ever again / it's just the spring it doesn't mean anything please.” An indefatigable moralist, Williams, at this stage in his career, veers too often into false pieties or, worse, overexcited sexual fantasies (in “Innings,” “somebody keeps track of how many times / I make love don't you god don't you?”). Too often the informing grief has the unreal air of the healthy regarding the sick at a vast remove.


Poems, 1963–1983 retains forty-five poems from Lies and forty-nine from I Am the Bitter Name. Although an author's note tells us that “several poems” have been omitted here (With Ignorance and Tar remain intact), the book would have gained from a more judicious selection. The first two volumes betray a lingering attachment to the fashions of their time: A blurry, imported surrealism dominates the imagery, and a poetic posturing (forgivable if still tedious in the young) suspends the poems in a glumly shortsighted idealism. Williams has acknowledged his early debt to Vallejo, Neruda, and Miguel Hernandez, but more than any stylistic traits or political affinities, what appears to have crossed over into his work is the picturesque—the turbulence, animation, quixotic ardors their poems project—a seductive alternative to the ennui of a middle-class life he loathes. But young poets soon learn from their foreign influences that the literal or psychological landscape of another country resists transplanting to one's native soil. With Neruda, no matter how surreal the text, the United Fruit Company and the right-wing forces in the Spanish Civil War loom immediately as presences in Chile or Barcelona. With Williams, examples of oppression (like the Biafran child on television) seem to come to him secondhand. The net effect is to convince us of his desire—even if, for the moment, it lacks the backing of experience—to emulate the inspired conscientiousness of those poets.

Starting with his third book, Williams appears to fall under a different and more compatible influence: Walt Whitman. Certainly we feel the presence of Whitman's ropy lines, his abundant realism, his hearty erotics and studied inclusion of all the social classes, and his profound rootedness in the landscape and experience of North America, what Whitman called “the large unconscious scenery of my land.” The sensationalist of the first two books now begins to work in more covert ways:

In the first two books I think I was trying to take the issues head-on, as raw as I could. … In With Ignorance and Tar, I quite intentionally tried to bury anything that looked like a message in the unconscious of the poem, the part of the poem that would work more subtly, more subliminally, if that's the word, on the reader.

(The Missouri Review, op. cit.)

The upshot of that decision is remarkable. Between the publication of I Am the Bitter Name in 1972 and With Ignorance in 1977, Williams's poems take a giant stride forward in vision, voice, attitude, and style. We notice the change in the book's opening lines:

The men working on the building going up here have got these great,
little motorized wheelbarrows that're supposed to be for lugging bricks and mortar
but that they seem to spend most of their time barrel-assing up the street in,
racing each other or trying to con the local secretaries into taking rides in the bucket.
I used to work on jobs like that and now when I pass by the skeleton of the girders
and the tangled heaps of translucent brick wrappings, I remember the guys I was with then
and how hard they were to know.

(from “The Sanctity”)

In place of the studied mannerisms of the previous two collections, Williams now adopts a blithely natural tone. We hear it in the way the lines mimic the jaunty colloquialisms—“that're,” “barrel-assing,” “con,” and “guys”—of the construction workers; the way the preposition suspended until the end of line three is grammatically awkward yet conversationally true; the way the sentence unfolds down the page in the cadences of a tavern bard. The parti-colored strains of American speech will play across every line Williams writes in the years to come. From a lachrymose New-World Job venting his sufferings in the language of abuse to this deft, street-talking populist—so complete an act of self-revision leaves one wondering how and why, and in the face of what knotty disavowals.

During this period, Williams was working on a translation (with Gregory W. Dickerson) of Sophocles's Women of Trachis. One might speculate that, in coming to terms with the formal demands of the play, he felt the powerful allure of the narrative, for he shifts from a conception of the poem as a hermetic unit to a conception of it as a vehicle for storytelling and rumination. Because narrative is more accessible to the common reader, something in Williams's proletarian leanings must have felt more at home in its structures; more momentously, narrative provided contexts—personal, historical, imagined—to ground his habitual speculative side. It turns out that Williams has a lot to say, and in With Ignorance he begins to say it.

Accordingly, in the next three books Williams turns more directly to the actual and historic for his material, all the while abjuring the mystifications—or more ornate embellishments—of poetry. He now asks that his poems be judged, not by some abstract idea of poetic beauty, but by the urgency with which they seem wrested from life. The following passage from “Spit” presents as its frame the story of a Nazi who begins to spit into a Rabbi's mouth “so that the Rabbi could continue to spit on the Torah”:

War, that happens and stops happening but is always somehow right there, twisting and hardening us;
then what we make of God—words, spit, degradation, murder, shame; every conceivable torment.
All these ways to live that have something to do with how we live
and that we're almost ashamed to use as metaphors for what goes on in us
but that we do anyway, so that love is battle and we watch ourselves in love
become maddened with pride and incompletion, and God is what it is when we're alone
wrestling with solitude and everything speaking in our souls turns against use like His fury
and just facing another person, there is so much terror and hatred that yes,
spitting in someone's mouth, trying to make him defile his own meaning,
would signify the struggle to survive each other and what we'll enact to accomplish it.

One might say that the enormity of the horror has overwhelmed the poet's faculties. Certainly Williams would have us believe that in this situation it would be inappropriate, even unethical, to speak in a more artful, more “written” language. And by conceding that there are things “we're almost ashamed to use as metaphors for what goes on in us,” he licenses himself to engage—like a rabbi in the Midrash interpreting a sacred text—this woolly homily on the brutal text of the Nazi's spitting. Until now, he has viewed human events as a range of tropes for his own interior life; but an atrocity like “spitting in someone's mouth, trying to make him defile his own meaning” calls such easy correspondences into question. To the moral dilemma, is it right to turn extreme suffering into private lyric excursion, he gives an implicit no. And yet, he declares, “we do anyway.” And the reason we do—which locates us collectively in the figure of the Nazi—resides devastatingly in “the struggle to survive each other and what we'll enact to accomplish it.”

That Williams sees this moment not as an isolated act of individual cruelty, but as one of those “ways to live that have something to do with how we live” points to the deepening consciousness he now brings to a poem. And though the Darwinian conjecture about “the struggle to survive” may seem too neat, in the act of questioning poetry's responsibilities he argues for a more lucid understanding of his own relationship to the poem. Rather than beginning with the self and searching for incidents to illustrate its confusions (an almost literal definition of the egoist), he now treats events as texts of their own, as Darwin treated the idea of species. Compare the Biafran child who spoiled a gleeful sexual moment in I Am the Bitter Name to a similar situation in “The Last Deaths,” a poem which could be read as a corrective to that earlier one:

A few nights ago I was half-watching the news on television and half-reading to my daughter.
The book was about a boy who makes a zoo out of junk he finds in a lot—
I forget exactly; a horse-bottle, a bedspring that's a snake, things like that—
and on the news they were showing a film about the most recent bombings.
There was a woman crying, tearing at her hair and breasts, shrieking incomprehensibly
because her husband and all her children had been killed the night before
and just when she'd flung herself against the legs of one of the soldiers watching her,
Jessie looked up and said, “What's the matter with her? Why's she crying?”

The quicksilver backing has faded from Williams's TV screen, for it's no longer just himself he finds reflected there. Instead, in seeing the war through the eyes of his daughter—and in seeing through her the careful balance between the storybook boy making a world out of rubble and the woman whose world has been reduced to rubble—the reader experiences, as does the father, that harrowing silence behind the daughter's unanswerable questions.

Williams's awareness of the ground he's breaking is suggested in the book's title, a phrase from Kierkegaard (“With ignorance begins a knowledge the first characteristic of which is ignorance”). If ignorance here means the willed sacrifice of some former self, then knowledge begins in the meticulous process of reimagining that self. In many poems the narrative anecdote alone illustrates that change; but in a significant number of others, Williams's heightened language allows him to examine the implications of his own conscious self-invention. The title poem, a series of charged, rhetorical X-rays, exposes the underlying psychic motives that the narrative (here called “history”) sets in motion:

And then back, from the dread, from locution and turn, from whatever history reflects us,
the self grounds itself again in itself and reflects itself, even its loss, as its own,
and back again, still holding itself back, the certainty and belief tearing again,
back from the edge of that one flood of surrender which, given space, would, like space itself,
rage beyond any limit, the flesh itself giving way in its terror, and back from that,
into love, what we have to call love, the one moment before we move onwards again,
toward the end, the life again of the self-willed, self-created, embodied, reflected again.

It could certainly be argued that this passage is as abstract or prone to sensation as anything in the earlier poems. But the ear catches a movement across the line—the breathless sentence mediated by a nervous tonal patterning—which leads, on its own, to a singular experience of the spectacle it describes. Frost's phrase for it was “the sound of sense,” like a conversation one overhears through a closed door: Though the words are unintelligible, the mood and spirit still come clear. In the passage above, Williams's long, oscillating line imitates the way the mind under pressure badgers, cajoles, interrogates itself, an anxiety one hears in the willed confusion of repeated words: “the self grounds itself again in itself and reflects itself, even its loss, as its own, / and back again, still holding itself back.” Even without clues sufficient to decode the complex cipher of those lines, we still quail a little at the audible self-erasure of those obsessive words.

Williams's interest in the link between the behavioral and psychological has been mirrored all along in his discrete uses of figurative and discursive language. But this new sanction to speak about abstract things in abstract terms calls up an old quandary which form itself cannot resolve: how to make a poem that unites the worlds of plot and rumination while still maintaining the linear insistence of poetry. As the marked differences in the last two quoted poems show, Williams tended to work in the two modes separately. In Tar, however, he begins, experimentally, to weave the two together; and given the huge demands of that ambition, it comes as no surprise that the book's true muse derives less from poetry than from Dostoyevski, whose capacious novels so colossally embody that struggle:

… I think it's probably been Dostoyevski more than anyone else who's been the deep novelistic influence. I've always been in great awe of him, of his inexhaustible moral energy. No matter how much you disagree with his world-vision, in a way you have to come to terms with his thoroughness, with the way he is always in touch with the larger questions, and most importantly, with the way his characters exist with so much curiosity and conviction and willingness to risk. He's also for me the philosophical novelist: his characters live out the quandaries and paradoxes of post-revolutionary, post-Kantian humanity in the most naked possible way.

(The Missouri Review, op. cit.)

It is easy to see what in Dostoyevski so attracted Williams's interest; and though, for better or worse, that interest has been there all along, not until Tar does he succeed in creating a persona who can “philosophize”—or, by turns, psychologize—and still exist full-bodied as a character. Like Dostoyevski's Underground Man, who declares “that to be conscious is an illness—a real thoroughgoing illness,” Williams sets out to dramatize consciousness itself, to set it in direct confrontation with an often unconscious world. Predictably, the poems take on a more disturbing sense of “the malleable, / mazy, convoluted matter of the psyche” (“One of the Muses”), that tarlike core of human nature. Near the end of “Combat”—the most darkly unrelenting example in the book—we see the poet with his miner's lamp winding through a labyrinth of instincts and motivations. Looking back on a frustrated romance carried out in the apartment and under the watchful eye of his girlfriend's mother—a German refugee whose husband, a former Nazi, killed himself after a failed plot to assassinate Hitler—Williams comes slowly to this observation:

These revisions of the past are probably even less trustworthy than our random, everyday assemblages
and have most likely even more to do with present unknowables, so I offer this almost in passing,
with nothing, no moral distillation, no headily pressing imperatives meant to be lurking beneath it.
I wonder, putting it most simply, leaving out humiliation, anything like that, if I might have been their Jew?
I wonder, I mean, if I might have been an implement for them, not of atonement—I'd have nosed that out—
but of absolution, what they'd have used to get them shed of something rankling—history, it would be:
they'd have wanted to be categorically and finally shriven of it, or of that part of it at least
which so befouled the rest, which so acutely contradicted it with glory and debasement.
The mother, what I felt from her, that bulk of silence, that withholding that I read as sorrow:
might it have been instead the heroic containment of a probably reflexive loathing of me?

Like someone prefacing a personal remark by saying “I don't mean this to sound personal,” Williams clearly intends us to doubt those opening qualifications, to trust this particular revision of the past, indeed to see it as a “moral distillation,” a “headily pressing imperative.” It is nothing if not headiness that we hear in the propulsive rhythm of the lines, and in the religious echoes of “atonement,” “absolution,” “shriven,” “befouled,” “glory,” and “debasement.” Yet while the tone is rapt, the method is psychoanalytic, and the accuracy of analysis depends less on eloquence than on the care and thoroughness it brings to “the facts.” And so, like a clinician presenting a case study, Williams, 102 lines earlier, documents those details upon which his conclusion is based. The poem opens with Williams, yet again seated in front of a TV set, being reminded (by a boxer's face) of a former lover (“Moira was her name”) and the lover's mother, who

                                        … was so white, not all that old but white: everything, hair, skin, lips, was ash,
except her feet, which Moira would often hold on her lap to massage and which were a deep,
frightening yellow, the skin thickened and dense, horned with calluses and chains of coarse, dry bunions,
the nails deformed and brown, so deeply buried that they looked like chips of tortoiseshell.

Those lines illustrate the poem's “other,” novelistic side, the side by which characters and settings assume memorable identities. The old woman's jaundiced feet are so palpably gross that the analytic sections that deal with her prove forceful and precise. Williams's unflagging ability to make those correspondences lends to Tar an extraordinary richness as narrative poetry, the sense that not only a story (or, conversely, only analysis) is at stake.

Another sign of Williams's maturation lies in his growing refusal of poetic closure. The early poems almost always end with the finality of a slammed door. In With Ignorance, those moments sound far less concussive, though an emotional tidying up still takes place. In Tar, rarely does the “story” that begins a poem also end it, and often a large time shift signifies some unresolved distance from the subject. At its best, the poem rushes not to conclusion, but to the verge of some harsh, unspeakable knowledge, which in turn leads back to the oddly unaltered day-to-day. Recalling his down-and-out years, when he walked into a grim, drug-stunned party in a run-down apartment, Williams writes:

There was something almost maniacally mindless about it, but at the same time it was like a battle,
that intense, that lunatic, and, hesitating in the doorway, something made me realize just how much
without noticing I'd come to be of that, to want or need it, and I swear I must have swayed,
the way, over their imaginary chaos, Manfred must have swayed, and Faust, before it swallowed them.
There's park there now. The morning I came back, I wandered by and stopped to sit awhile.
Why, after all the fuss, a park, I don't know, but at any rate, it's not a pleasant place …

(from “Flight”)

This final stanza goes on to notice “unpleasant” details from the present-day neighborhood, an out-of-order drinking fountain, the “bleak concrete mostly”; then the poet's attention falls on “Two busloads of retarded kids … playing with their teachers on the asphalt ball field,” the smallest ones wearing plastic football helmets stencilled with eagles and “GIANTS.” It is a touching moment, but Williams doesn't insist on the pathos or attempt to exploit the obvious ironic connection with the people at the “mindless” party. Instead, the children are left in the cloister of that sunny moment, and the poem ends with the poet closing his eyes, dozing and dreaming, “listening to the children.” After that stormy entrance as Manfred, the poet's peaceful exit leaves a reader heartened and subdued, as though a momentary triumph over chaos had been effected—not by the stubborn counterforce of some Byronic hero, but by the cheerful endurance of the retarded children, “twittering with glee and shrieking as they lumbered from home plate to center field and back.”


In a 1987 essay, “Poetry and Consciousness” (American Poetry Review, vol. 16, no. 1), Williams reflects on the way the mind receives, translates into language, and organizes experience. The emotion that finally results from the process is as much a product of the mind as it is a consequence of experience:

Whatever the experience … emotion arises from, the mind will have to process it. During this processing, there will also be images generated into consciousness, some dictated by the experience itself, some with very little or nothing to do with it. There will also be the participation of the senses, of language, as it comments, criticizes, reflects, plus there will be an awareness that the equation which all of this makes, the emotion, is something that is not a normal moment of passing consciousness.

The passage says a lot about Williams's evolving interest in a poetry that simulates the mind's chaotic methods. If we think of “experience” as the subject that initiates a poem, and “emotion” as the effect that follows it, then the poem becomes the “consciousness” responsible for “processing” the one into the other—a process that allows for arbitrariness, interpolation, caprice, digression, things generally thought to be anathema to poetry. For all the satisfactions that must have come with Tar, Williams has continued to push toward a more faithful enactment of that process. In Flesh and Blood, he resolves again to reform his poem, to capture the way the mind's currents arc between those poles of experience and emotion.

While the long line remains, the poem's fixed length precludes certain habits of the extended narratives: the elaboration of dramatic action, his exhaustive attention to character and setting, those prolonged passages of excited speculation, etc. But Williams doesn't do away altogether with any of those things; instead, he finds a method for reactivating them by narrowing the poem's temporal range. In this he lights upon certain tactics akin to haiku—e.g., the flash of insight—like those which Lowell acknowledged were crucial to the writing of his sonnets. While Tar returns like memory to revise and make sense of the past, Flesh and Blood, like an unblinking eye, convenes the disorderly present tense—the impression, if not the fact, of experience played out before us:

The way she tells it, they were in the Alps or somewhere, tall, snow-capped mountains anyway,
in their hotel, a really nice hotel, she says, they'd decided that for once they'd splurge.
They'd just arrived, they were looking from their terrace out across a lake or bay or something.
She was sitting there, just sitting there and thinking to herself how pleasant it all looked,
like a postcard, just the way for once it's supposed to look, clean and pure and cool,
when his hand came to her shoulder and he asked her something, “Don't you think it's lovely?”
then something else, his tone was horrid; there was something that he wanted her to say—
how was she to know what he wanted her to say?—and he shook her then, until she ached.

(“The Marriage”)

We see here something of the manner by which Williams scales down his earlier narratives. In the first clause, he quickly fixes the event: a story the married woman has confided to the narrator, and one the narrator in turn confides to the reader. (And, given Williams's bent for autobiography, we might reasonably assume that initial conversation happened once.) Next, he filters her story through the narrator's consciousness, which extracts the most resonant features: The “Alps or somewhere,” and “a lake or bay or something” are muted in favor of essences, “the way for once it's supposed to look, clean and pure and cool.” Like a portraitist blurring background detail to examine his subject more carefully, Williams obscures everything around the troubled wife. That scrutiny grows so intense that in the last three lines the narrator's voice merges with hers. Certainly the quote is the woman's, as is, it seems, the word “horrid.” And don't we hear her emphasis in that last line? By such acts of concentration a reader enters the rising craziness of that ruthless moment: “how was she to know what he wanted her to say?—and he shook her then, until she ached.”

Williams's dogged interest in states of mind (typically moments of psychic extremity) materializes nowhere more fully than in Flesh and Blood. Nor does his flair for discourse. The constraints of the eight-line form permit him to place abstract thoughts on a stage of their own, freed of the apparatus of narrative. Still, the lessons of twenty years have not been lost; he now knows the abstract depends on the concrete for substance, as the concrete depends on the abstract for significance. And the success of this book's countless meditations—on everything from anger, conscience, suicide, and love to reading, mothers, and dreams—derives in large part from Williams's gift for metaphor:

It is the opposite or so of the friendly gossip from upstairs who stops by every other evening.
It's the time she comes in once too often, or it's more exactly in the middle of her tête-à-tête,
when she grows tedious beyond belief, and you realize that unless an etiquette is violated
this will just go on forever, the way, forever, rain never comes, then comes, the luscious opposite,
the shock of early drops, the pavements and the rooftops drinking, then the scent, so heady with release
it's almost overwhelming, thick and vaginal, and then the earth, terrified that she'd bungled it,
that she'd dwelt too long upon the problems of the body and the mind, the ancient earth herself,
like someone finally touching pen to page, breathes her languid, aching suspiration of relief.

(“End of Drought”)

Just as “The Marriage” demonstrates the novelistic amplitude possible still in this sonnetlike form, “End of Drought” shows the poet's imaginative gamut when he sets his sights on more abstract game. The luxuriance in the arrival of that longed-for rain reaches us through a series of adroitly interwoven tropes: the thrice-qualified metaphor of the gossip; a simile comparing the rain's arrival to the end of the gossip's tireless monologue; the personification of the earth, which (linking it backward to the gossip and forward to the poet) fears it “dwelt too long upon the problems of the body and the mind.” Perhaps not until a second or third reading do we realize that the body of the poem is just one extended image of the gossip. As if on their own momentum, Williams's “abstract” poems cut a path back to their titles through lush, unpredictable terrain, and the sensibility which maps that course forces us to feel—even before we understand—the rough topography of the subjects it covers.

The overall impression of Flesh and Blood is kaleidoscopic, the world broken into a thousand fine, luminous fragments which cohere in a crazed, elaborate design, forming and being formed, as one poem tells us, by “the circles of community that intersect within us” (“Le Petit Salvié”). It is also enormously inclusive, taking in the poor, the leisured, the middle-class, the intellectual and illiterate, the healthy and insane—“of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,” as Whitman said. But unlike Whitman, who views everything with a certain divine secular love, Williams is a moralist who registers more acutely his own angers, fears, and judgments:

Vas en Afrique! Back to Africa! the butcher we used to patronize in the rue Cadet market,
beside himself, shrieked at a black man in an argument the rest of the import of which I missed
but that made me anyway for three years walk an extra street to a shop of definitely lower quality
until I convinced myself that probably I'd misunderstood that other thing and could come back.
Today another black man stopped, asking something that again I didn't catch, and the butcher,
who at the moment was unloading his rotisserie, slipping the chickens off their heavy spit,
as he answered—how get this right?—casually but accurately brandished the still-hot metal,
so the other, whatever he was there for, had subtly to lean away a little, so as not to flinch.


“Racists” strikes a critical balance between two separate incidents, each held up as a proposition in an ethical argument which, if only the poet can “get this right,” the reader can comprehend. In this case getting it right depends on his choice of “brandishing,” for with that word comes an unmistakable judgment. (Consider, for example, the different sense called up by a word like waving.) Williams throws into the argument his own lack of moral rigor: Three years after the first incident, “I convinced myself that probably I'd misunderstood,” so he could again patronize the better market. Williams realizes we not only form our language, but our language forms us; and we may presume that his resolve in choosing the word “brandishing” has less to do with accuracy than it does with enforcing that moral rigor. With that word in mind, he won't be able to go back again.

This simple moral lesson aside, “Racists” raises one of the technical difficulties in any book-length sequence in a fixed form. The poem treads a fine line between the lyric and anecdotal, and, with too many poems like it grouped together, one could be tempted to scrap the form (the physical tug of the narrative) and read for the anecdote alone (that prosy ground from which the narrative is launched). Perhaps Williams has so shrewdly alternated between abstract and dramatic poems in order to create a secondary rhythm which itself ensures that lyric surge. It may be possible to draw a connection between this discontinuous technique and that of the modernists, but his style is much less one of a design moving toward fragmentation than of fragments moving toward design. In that way the book more closely resembles the Alexandrian art of the idyll—a series of little pictures whose narrative links are suppressed, and whose dramatic effect is gained by the juxtaposition of scenes. And since, in poetry, sound is more crucial than story or idea, we must listen for Williams's “sound” not only in the line and poem, but in those swings of emphasis from one poem to the next.

All five of Williams's volumes end in poem cycles, but not until Flesh and Blood does one effectively duplicate the book's larger motifs. “Le Petit Salvié,” an eighteen-poem elegy for Williams's friend, the poet Paul Zweig, is an act of portraiture, homage, self-scrutiny, and extended speculation on the meaning of death. And in the manner of Yeats's “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” it is also a calling up of presences (as if “Beside a fire of turf in th’ ancient tower”): remembered visits between the two families (Zweig's and Williams's); touchingly private moments between the two men alone; an imagined meeting (in “something like heaven”) between Zweig, his “guru,” and another of Williams's friends recently dead, all of them “glowing, grinning down at me from somewhere in the heart of being, / ablaze with wonder and a child's relief that this after all is how astonishingly it finishes.”

From those “covenants of affection we embody,” Williams gleans whatever provisional solace he can, a solace made grander by the gravity of the questions he undauntedly asks: “Are we to be redeemed? When? How? After so much disbelief, will something be beyond us to receive us?” And: “What if after, though, there is something else, will there be judgment then, will it be retributive, / and if it is, if there is sin, will you have to suffer some hellish match with what your wrongs were?” Pursuing these questions leads him to his own dark night of the soul, and out of one such night he brings back the tentative affirmation that Zweig himself embodies:

Our last night, though, I strolled into the moonless fields, it might have been a thousand centuries ago,
and something suddenly was with me: just beyond the boundaries of my senses presences were threatening,
something out of childhood, mine or humankind's; I felt my fear, familiar, unfamiliar, fierce,
might freeze me to the dark, but I looked back—I wasn't here alone, your house was there,
the zone of warmth it made was there, you yourself were there, circled in the waiting light.

(from “Le Petit Salvié”)

That moment of timeless jeopardy might have led Williams earlier in his career to some grandiose conclusion, but with the ripening of his talents has come a chastened modesty before the rituals of human experience. Like a soldier who has gone off to war filled with heroic visions of battle—only to return home with the simple knowledge of human suffering—Williams has learned that the Furies’ hearts hold secrets blacker than he imagined. As readers, our indebtedness to him perhaps begins in that boyish fervor to open himself to experience; but it's sustained in his tough, often heart-stopping candor, his flat refusal to turn away, even in the hardest hours, and even in those to remain essentially life-affirming. In that alone he distinguishes himself from most of his contemporaries.

The vicissitudes of a restless, headstrong mind are Williams's trademark, but the evolution of his work is more aptly characterized by the thresholds in his development: from the early self-absorbed, self-dramatizing poet to the outward-looking Dostoyevskian narrator, to the immediate, unblinking detective-witness of Flesh and Blood. For readers who ask little more of poetry than personal testimonial or an attentive eye, Williams's work may seem disturbingly heterogeneous, for it willfully disregards the contemporary dictum about segregating ideas and things. And, stepping back from the work as a whole, even a sympathetic reader may find it a little unbuttoned with all its philosophical and psychological shoptalk. But in Williams's cosmology ideas are things—real, substantial, fully formed—and since they take their place among our everyday furnishings, they are also knocked about and taken for granted. The point is, they are used, not as fragile antique display pieces closeted from reach until the guests come by, but as those glued, patched, timeworn objects on which we eat, sleep, study, make love, those obdurate structures on which our daily lives depend so resolutely.

That one generally feels equal to those ideas (and part of their appeal is their accessibility) we must attribute to the virtues of Williams's later style: its shrewd blend of the dramatic and discursive, its blunt refusal to refine the human figure out of its unkempt form. If the cultivation of that style has exacted a price in terms of self-revisions and repudiations, its achievement has brought sure, though sobering, rewards. One can almost imagine that the closing lines of section sixteen of “Le Petit Salvié” are spoken by the poet as he, too, looks back—from the welcome landfall of these last two books—across the clarifying sea of his collected poems:

There are no consolations, no illuminations, nothing of that long-awaited flowing toward transcendence.
There is, though, compensation, the simple certainty of having touched and having been touched.
The silence and the speaking come together, grief and gladness come together, the disparates fuse.

Michael Collier (review date Summer 1991)

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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, with no space for itself, no / power for itself, / a moment, a silence, a rising, the terror for that, the space for that. / Imagine love.”

In contrast to this speculative “imagining” and prose-like discursiveness, which controls and presents a poem's passion and emotion, C. K. Williams's early work—Lies and I Am the Bitter Name—is imagistic, often syntactically fragmented, and is filled with an emotional anger and violence, petulance and self-laceration. “I am going to rip myself down the middle into two pieces,” he writes in “Halves,” and in “Downwards,” “… I am rolling, fragile as a bubble in the upstream spin, / battered by carcasses, drawn down by the lips of weeds / to the terrible womb of torn tires and children's plastic shoes / and pennies and urine. I am no more, and what is left, / baled softly with wire, floating / like a dark pillow in the hold of the brown ship, is nothing.”

It would be too easy to say that Williams's work changes because his own character matures, though certainly this is true. In a poem from Tar, he writes, “What else did I have then? Not very much: being alone most of the time, / retrospectively noble, / but bitter back then, brutal, abrasive, corrosive—I was wearing away / with it like a tooth.” As “Halves” and “Downwards” show, the early work does not lack substance or turbulence and is, in a raw emotive way, extremely powerful, but a reader will feel that the idiom and diction of Williams's early style allowed him to express passion and emotion without transforming and transcending them. As a result one feels that Williams is trapped not only within the violent prison of the self but also within an imprisoning idiom. Williams finds in the long lines of his later poems a way to escape the self, a way to examine his experience and find in it not only the rage and anger, the injustice and arbitrariness of life but also its mercy and forgiveness. Williams writes, again from “With Ignorance,” “Self and other the self within other and the self still moved through its / word, / consuming itself, still, and consuming, still being rage, war, the fear, the / aghast, / but bless, bless still, even the fear, the loss, the gutting of word, the / gutting even of hunger, / but still to bless and bless, even the turn back, the refusal, to bless and / to bless and to bless.”

C. K. Williams comes to accept this mercy and forgiveness by making an act of faith in the power of words. This acceptance is a triumph, human and poetic, and it is this triumph that makes Poems, 1963–1983 a remarkable and important poetic document.

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

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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 from the lower and middle classes and given over to the rich. Something that momentous would be the subject of heated debate in Europe, but in America, it barely seems to catch people's attention. Many Americans are passionately absorbed, though, in abortion, which is really a cultural issue, but which is debated in the political arena. The country, when you see things like that, is frighteningly divided: the libertarians versus the puritans, the religionists versus the secularists, not even to speak of the various racial tensions. But again, many of these divisions are expressed as political rather than cultural questions, and they tend to crowd out the real social-political decisions which are being made without people even noticing. Most American working people should be, by definition, liberal Democrats; you would have to be if you have any hope of getting your share of the society's economic pie, but this is obscured by appeals to people's cultural fears. How does being away, and how does coming back to America affect my writing? I think things like that are easier to see when you become more familiar with how other cultures deal with them. On the other hand, I realized recently that my new book is much more introspective than the others; I thought at first that probably this was just a time in my life when I wanted a more intense kind of inward attention, but then I realized that maybe I've been more introspective because I'm no longer a member of the American community the way I used to be. I certainly consider myself an American, and have always resisted the idea of being an expatriate; I just want to be an American who happens to live in Paris. My audience is American, and so am I, and I've been careful not to set too many poems in Paris. Although I've been going to Paris off and on for a long time, and have written a number of poems there, I've often changed the setting of those poems. I'd see some situation being manifested in some way in Paris, but I'd realize that it was something that was common to both cultures, so I'd move the action back to the States. A few poems I'd leave set in Paris, because I realized it could also be an effective strategy to let the reader believe they're involved in something that's rather exotic, and then have to realize that it's all actually part of their own struggle, their own identity. There's a poem in Flesh and Blood called “Racists” that does that quite clearly.

I wanted to start off talking about an essay you published in The American Poetry Review, “Poetry and Consciousness.” I thought we might discuss narrative a little, which is a subject I'm pursuing myself, the idea of narrative and fantasy in the mind of a poet, how that translates onto the page, and how it might become a political act for the poet.

It sounds as though you're asking three questions, about things that are usually pretty separate. Do you mean fantasy, as distinct from imagination, in Coleridge's terms?

I'm defining it the way you do in the “Poetry and Consciousness” essay, as the narrative the mind pursues on its own.

That essay was originally a talk I delivered to a convention of psychiatrists, and I was using the term “fantasy” in the way they use it, to describe the little dramas the mind constantly produces, which they interpret as expressing the tensions of the unconscious. I don't know whether in a literary conversation I'd call them narratives, although I suppose they are. I find fantasy, in both the way the psychiatrists use it, and the way Coleridge did, a terrifically useful mechanism, and I imagine everyone who writes does. What we call memory isn't really distinct in substance and quality, in the vivid and elusive way it comes to us, from fantasy.

In your poetry, for example in “From My Window,” the poem's subject matter often includes many different narratives, recounted from the poet's point of view. Is this an inherently political act? Are you assuming an Archimedean point in the poems, and creating narratives to evolve a personal political space?

That's an interesting thought. “From My Window,” is, as you say, about different life-narratives, and it does imply, certainly, different points of view. I suppose once you begin accumulating narratives in that way, the poem has to become political or social in some sense of those words because you're trying to deal with more than your own world. All of that might actually be a good description of what the poem is about. I once was asked to write about the poem at some length, and I came to similar conclusions, although when I was writing the poem, all the thematic matter wasn't that premeditated. But what you're saying might be a way to amplify the idea of why one would use narrative in the first place, because you can begin to feel limited by your own narrative situation, and once you decide to expand it, you have to move to a kind of mind-set which includes other people, and out of that follows a different sort of poetic consciousness.

I'll take a little detour and ask about your long line. Do you find expressing this kind of narrative consciousness easier in the long-lined poem?

Yes, I think that's really one of the main reasons I started using the long line, so I'd be able to include that kind of objective narrative material, although I have to say I never actually thought of the term narrative per se when I began to write those poems. The word seemed to arrive after I published With Ignorance, the first book in which I used the line. People remarked a lot on the narrative identity of the poems, but really most of the poems in the book aren't narrative at all. In fact, most of the poems I've written in long lines haven't really been narratives, although many of them use narrative elements. It's a shame—I've said this before—that the word “anecdote” has been debased. Anecdote for us tends to mean something superficial, even trivial, but anecdotal material has always been one of the core resources of lyric poetry. Many lyric poems depend on an anecdote which is embodied and then reflected upon. I think that in all the long-lined poems I've been trying to loosen up what I felt were the constraints the lyric had placed on me. I've always felt that almost all my poems were primarily lyric, and to have the word narrative applied to the poems seems to undercut what I was trying to do. Even “From My Window,” which does include, as you say, strips of narrative, really has no story the way we usually mean it when we speak of narrative. These guys are going along the street, somebody falls down, I'm looking out the window and see them. The poem really has more to do with various kinds of vision, and the epiphanies that happen in terms of vision.

I guess I was using the word narrative because in much of the literary theory that's been written lately, not much has been done with poetry. Much contemporary literary theory has dealt with fiction, often using the term “narrative” as a basis for evaluating the political actions in the text. I was wondering if we could begin to apply some of the same standards, some of the same ways of looking at experience, to poetry?

I'm trying to write an essay now about that. I think one of the great shortcomings of contemporary criticism is that for the most part it looks so single-mindedly to fiction for its experiential matter. I think the reason is because many readers, even critics, even teachers of literature, have become mistrustful, or apprehensive, or, to be frank, ignorant, of the function form plays in art and in experience. Compared to poetry, fiction is essentially a formless genre, in the sense that it doesn't have the artifice, the purely artificial layer of necessity that poetry takes upon itself. There are exceptions, of course, but it's certainly true of what we could call the generic novel. When you subtract form from subject-matter, you're always subtracting from potential experience. I don't want to go into this too much, because, as I say, I'm writing about it, but I think people are getting a little tired of the novel, and are going to begin to turn to poetry again; I think many young people already have.

About contemporary criticism—much of it is historical, or historicist, or economically inquisitive in some way, trying to get a political handle on the work it discusses. Can a poem deal with history in a way a novel can't?

This is a nice coincidence, because for the last few weeks, during my time at George Mason, I've been giving a seminar-workshop on just that theme. When I do my classes there, I find that I can use the short time I have more profitably by studying poems from the canon with some idea in mind, and then looking at the workshop participants poems in the same way, and this last session has been on myth and history. We studied Keats and the way he uses myth in some of his poems, then we looked at Yeats and Lowell and the way they used history in some of theirs. The poem we studied most closely was “For the Union Dead,” and when you begin to analyze it from an historical point of view, it's really quite astonishing. Just the different periods of history that are dealt with in the poem; it moves from the time the poem was written, in the late Fifties, back to Lowell's childhood, then to the Civil War, then to the colonial era, then to after the Civil War, when the St. Gauden's memorial sculpture was dedicated, then to the Second World War, and the advent of the nuclear age with Hiroshima, then back to the present, which included the Civil Rights marches, the beginning of the reshaping of the American cities, etc. All in an amazingly condensed lyric structure that concentrates the experience in a completely unpolemical way, and attaches itself to our own lives in a way I don't think fiction would be able to. The precision with which poems deal with time makes a different demand on consciousness compared to the more amorphous, flowing sense of time in fiction. The moments of a poem are very intense, very discrete and vivid; you're moved through them, and through time, in a formal way, with a kind of double consciousness that makes you very aware of other realms, the moral, the ethical and political.

Do poems create a new sense of time? Can they create a new history, a safer history that tells a new story?

Rather than “safer,” I'd prefer to say “more reliable.” For people who are experienced in the language of poetry, going into a poem means going into a different sense of time. That's one of the reasons you go to poetry. What might be “new” in the story, and that poetry has as one of its essential resources, is the story of itself. Through its form, poetry recounts the way it manages time and consciousness. Once you move into the kind of consciousness poetry evokes, you move into a special kind of mental space. It's like being in a church, or in prayer. You pay attention to what's happening to you differently from the way you ordinarily do. When you move into the space of a poem, you're attentive to your consciousness, you expect different things of it, and in that way the poet has access to the mind of the reader in a way very little else does, I think.

In “Poetry and Consciousness,” again, you mention that ability of consciousness to do several things simultaneously as almost in itself creating a moral sense; we combine different elements of consciousness into the single creation we call a poem.

It might be that attentiveness to consciousness is the beginning of any moral reflection or act, at least for a modern liberal. Most religions, or, I probably should say, most fundamentalist interpretations of religions, demand quite a different attitude. For them, what goes on in consciousness, its intentions and its reflections, are essentially incidental. What's important is what's asked of consciousness by the community of believers; the individual's consciousness has to be revised and reshaped to fit that. In liberalism, of any age, starting with the Greeks, what happens in the mind of the individual matters excruciatingly. We presume that out of our reflections will come self-truths that will allow us a more sensitive social awareness and richer kinds of moral actions.

You mentioned form earlier. Sometimes in your poetry it seems as though you're following an almost Charles Olson-like conception, with the syllable as a unit of meaning, and the line taking care of the whole breath, so that the line can seem to comprise many small ideas, while it's still a whole breath, a complete unit, a single musical phrase. Is that similar to the way you conceive your particular idea of line?

I haven't thought about Olsen much lately, although there was a period in which I found something fascinating in the sheer energy he gave off in his writing, more in his prose than in his poetry. I never really felt a deep sympathy with the project of his poetry. About my own work: I don't conceive of my line as related especially to the breath, but though technically it isn't metrical, in that it isn't accountable in any regular way, I do consider it a definite musical unit, albeit one that I vary quite a bit.

Do you think that it's the poet's responsibility to try to achieve meaning in the poem? Is it the poet's responsibility to bring the music and the sense together in a cohesive meaning, or should we tolerate meaninglessness? If so, how far can we let meaninglessness go? What about the Language Poets? Are the Language Poets irresponsible in attempting to achieve a meaning translatable to the reader?

I find the Language Poets trivial rather than irresponsible. Certainly in their polemic and rhetoric, they speak a great deal of responsibility, of the commitment of art to social ideals, and so forth, but you certainly don't see much of it in their work. From a technical point of view, if they're willing to sacrifice the meaning of language to its potential as music, they certainly could be doing a lot more interesting things with the music than they are. If they're trying to develop a new system of meaning, they're not doing anything much different from what the Dadaists did, and they're much less interesting and inspiring than the Dadaists or Surrealists. I feel they're mostly driven by a passion for novelty, by the desire to be out ahead of everybody else, to be more “avant garde,” but they're giving away an awful lot in that way. Of course, I might be speaking of some poets I don't mean to; someone like Leslie Scallopino, who I often find fascinating: I've heard her mentioned along with the Language Poets, although I don't find much similarity between her work and the poets who are the hard core of the movement. Certainly poetry is always an expression, or at least an embodiment of meaning, because if you put two words together, language will evoke something of meaning out of them, no matter how badly you might want it not to. The issue I've been struggling with over the last years has had more to do with the level of discursive meaning a poem can hold. We all know there are many different ways a poem can mean something; it can move from being almost wholly connotative, to being much closer to what I'm calling the discursive. It seems our moment of poetry has mostly been committed to connotative kinds of meaning, and I've been working with trying to push myself towards the other end of the scale. I've been exploring, at least for myself, how much you can say of what you'd mean in other modes of language, in what we might crudely call the philosophical mode, for example. Poems that are very formally complex, formally attentive, on the surface don't seem to have to have as high a degree of denotative meaning to be satisfying, they work in more freely connotative ways, but it seems to me that we should be able to put our intellects to use, and our more overtly analytic mental operations, and still have our poems be formally and musically satisfying. In my new book, A Dream of Mind, I've been trying to find ways to be even more directly discursive than I have been before, while not sacrificing anything of the musical interest I think a poem should have.

Does this mean that we leave the idea of the objective correlative behind entirely?

Without over-simplifying too much, I think that what Eliot meant by the objective correlative is pretty close to what we call now the image. The objective correlative is one of the characteristic methods of what I've been calling connotative meaning. It's always in poetry, it's almost the very substance of poetry. What we do around it is what changes in the evolution, or I should say shifting, of styles. I guess the more discursive kinds of poetic events don't have titles yet, although you could probably find some good ones in old books of rhetoric.

If we follow the idea of discursive thinking or discursive poetry, do you simply follow the way your mind takes you when you're writing a poem, or is there more of a sense of purpose?

I wish it were so neat. Usually the purpose of the poem, along with its meaning, evolves as I work on it. In some poems, it can seem as though the meaning is evident, and all I'm doing is following along after it, but that's very rare. Generally, there's a sort of fusion of purpose and play. It's one of the more interesting things about writing poetry, that fusion. For the reader, what's most noticeable as an element of play is the music; there's really no reason for music to exist in language, it's arbitrary and artificial, and that's quite evident. But the fact that the eyes and mind attach to a particular image or a particular happening can also be regarded as arbitrary, as playful. Why one thing rather than another? There's really no reason. What we call the purpose, the moral element of the poem, the apparatus which evokes that purpose, seems at first the opposite of playful: it's deadly serious. But when the poem is realized in the mind, the purposeful and playful, the moral and the musical come together. There are two ways of looking at the poem. You can say what the purpose is that's been imposed on the poem, which might really have been quite incidental in the composition, and what is the moral truth that evolves from all these fusions, these dances between play and purpose.

I guess that leads us back to form. I want to address the distinction between Post-modern poetry and Post-modern fiction. Do we distinguish between the two by saying that post-modern poetry can have that sort of dance in it, a sort of purposeful playfulness that fiction can't?

No, fiction can be playful, too, but in a different sense. Poetry has a much higher consciousness of form, and play and form aren't at all the same thing. I suppose you can attach a kind of scale to form. All art has it to one degree or another, but in the literary arts, the novel has the least commitment to form, and poetry the greatest. The style of a novel, of the prose, can be very energetic, very playful, and the voice of the novelist in this sense can play as much as the poet. But the poem has the extra layer of formal attentiveness that's not in the novel, by definition.

Do you think that there is a post-modern form to poetry? A few years ago, Jonathan Holden wrote an essay on post-modern form, saying that poetic form is no longer based on epistemological anxiety, and that it isn't inherently organic, but that it is now analogical. Forms are based on meaning placed on a continuum ranging from confessional to what he calls “primal scream.” Do you think it's helpful to devise such a post-modern form?

I hadn't heard that idea. I'm not terribly interested in the concept of post-modernism; it seems as though the word began to be used as a catch-all and remains a catch-all. It originally came up in architecture, to describe the next stage in the evolution of architectural style after what was called Modernism, and I think it was a very useful term, for architecture, not for everything in the world. On the other hand, I think that what Holden says is interesting. I don't think, though, that it's post-modernism that he's speaking of, if you apply it to poetry. I think that he's describing the evolution of free verse, of what you could call functional verse, in which the form of the verse is generated at a level much closer to the meaning than in the forms of non-free verse. In Holden's terms, Walt Whitman would have to be called a post-modernist, because who better developed a form that came out of its meaning than he did? Alan Shapiro has written a very strong essay on all this. I don't want to give away his ideas before he publishes them, but he postulates two quite different visions of the world that are implied in the use of free verse and in the use of metrical verse. He points out that each has a different vision of history and time, and of human potentiality within history and time, and I think that's true.

What about the conscious choice of poets to use traditional forms? We've talked about various forms, Language poetry probably being the lack of any controlling form, except perhaps that they have the lack of form as intent. What about your choices of form, the eight-line poem of Flesh and Blood. Is this a choice for form? And, if so, why a choice to operate in that one form? Is it limiting, or particularly helpful?

It was something I blundered on. When I finished Tar, I had a lot of poems left over. One, in eight-line stanzas I'd been struggling with for a few years, and one day I was working on it and realized it was never going to be a poem. But when I looked at one of the stanzas, I realized it could stand by itself, that with a few changes it could work as a poem that I found quite satisfying. I began to go through the poems that were left over, and to find stanzas that could be shaped into poems, and I went on from there. I've written about this before somewhere, but non-artists tend to think of form as a limiting thing; they think you have to hammer experience into a form, but in fact form is generative, it helps you create. If, for instance, you're committed to writing six-line stanzas in a poem, and you come up with an idea that takes up only four lines, you're forced to find two more lines, and often you'll come up with something unexpected that you wouldn't have found without that formal compulsion. It's the same thing with the music of a poem; the need to satisfy the formal demands of the music often takes you where you wouldn't have otherwise gone, on the most detailed as well as the most general level. That's what happened with the eight line poems. Once I became committed to them, their form became terrifically liberating, and I began to deal with themes I don't think I would have otherwise, and to use language in ways I never had. The problem with that kind of form, though, is that you consume it, you have to be careful because it can become automatic, and empty. The first seventy-seven of Berryman's Dream Songs, for example, were marvelous, and made an astonishing book. But then he went on, and the next three hundred of the poems were for the most part, on a much lower level; I think many of them shouldn't have existed at all; they actually seemed to dilute the power of the first group. The same thing happened to a lesser degree with Lowell in his Notebook and History. Although I think Lowell had a greater genius for that kind of expansiveness than Berryman did, you still get a sense by the end that he's sometimes trivializing his own talent by aiming it at themes and subjects that aren't worthy of him, just because it became so easy. With me, towards the end of writing Flesh and Blood, I felt I could make a poem out of almost anything. There was an amazing feeling of freedom, as though my imagination had finally found the perfect way to work, and it was also very seductive; form has its traps, too. When I finished the book, I had another fifty poems, finished or nearly. When the book was in production, I remember I finished one last poem and brought it to my editor Jon Galassi. He began to proof read it, I was looking at it over his shoulder, and I suddenly realized it wasn't a real poem; it was hollow, it rang false to me; I took it back, and put the rest of the poems in a file.

Have you pretty much left that form behind, then? The latest poem I saw in The New Yorker, “When,” didn't take the eight-line form.

Yes. It used a four-line stanza poem. I've given up the eight-line stanza as a form for complete poems, but I still usually, although not always, like to work in regular stanzas of one length or another. As I say, I find the kind of rigor it demands important for me in going as far as I can with an idea.

We talked earlier about the ability of the poem to teach. When you're teaching poetry, do you try to teach traditional forms, or to teach discovery of a form? When we're learning how to write poetry, how to put meaning into a poem, figuring out what poems can say; how do you teach that? Do you try and teach through forms?

As I think I've said here, if you're teaching poetry, you have to be teaching form. Poetry is form. If your students are primarily writing in free verse, you try to teach them the formal necessities free verse entails, of which there are just as many as in the more conventional forms; they're harder to talk about, because in traditional forms you count, and counting seems much more rational than working with musical elements that are more closely tied to the way language moves when it's not being counted. I believe very much in learning to use traditional forms and meters. When I started writing, one of the first things I did was a sonnet sequence of about fifty sonnets; each poem had a different rhyme scheme; I used full rhymes and slant rhymes and para-rhymes. I ended up throwing the whole thing away, but it was very important to me. I wrote mostly in meters in those days, and then one day something made me begin to write in free verse, and I felt very liberated. I didn't so much make a conscious decision to give up meters, I just began experimenting with free verse, and kept going. When I'm teaching, I find I try to encourage some students to be freer, to move out into areas of experience which might make them write more expansively, with less encumbrances, while I try to get others to impose stricter limits on themselves, to give them shapes to work in. Most often what you're trying to do, though, is find what a student has done without quite being aware of what they were doing, and then to try to show them how to go farther in the direction they're already moving. As far as the difference between free verse and meter, I think there's a very active dialectic between the traditional forms and those that I've called the more functional ones. Even poets who write only free verse by necessity have to spend a great deal or most of their time reading and studying poems in meters, since that's the greater part of our tradition. I think that's one of the misapprehensions of the so-called New Formalists, who are fundamentalists in the same way religious fundamentalists are: they say there's only one way to see the world, through various kinds of authority, and everything else is suspect at best, and valueless at worst. There are some people who feel as strongly the other way; that any kind of meter or rhyme is intolerable, and I think they're just as wrong. There are always exchanges going on between various notions of form; the conventional forms are still there to be used, and since the entire tradition in some ways is implicit in any poem, you can always find traces of the metrical tradition in a good free-verse poem. I've been using rhymes in my translations these days, and who knows, I might start using them in my poems. One of the delights of being an artist is in moving into areas where you wouldn't have ever thought you'd go.

So you're saying that the New Formalists have no real generative tension in their poetry?

No, I don't say that at all. I have nothing intrinsically against their poems. Some are good, some bad, just as some free verse poems are good and some bad. What I often find reprehensible are their polemics. They're like the Language Poets in the way they mix up so crudely their aesthetics with their politics. They claim to be conservative in the good sense of the term; they want to conserve old values, but they never articulate what the broader implications of the values they're trying to save or resurrect might be, except for their one aesthetic obsession. To impose an aesthetic point of view on reality is a very complex matter, especially if you're going also to be cranky about it. I think that after a century of watching how polemics can turn on human beings, how that sort of passionate certainty can be put to uses one would never have dreamed of, we have to be careful of any gesture anybody makes that first tries to make of someone else an opponent, and then tries, in whatever way, to wipe that opponent out. The revolutionary polemics at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth were trying to break down social forms, and they had a very clear, and very certain idea, at least for awhile, of how the social and aesthetic were woven together, which they are. Things certainly did break down, to our chagrin, but we're in a period of trying to put things back together; the social forms we've inherited are at best incomplete, they leave too many people out, and at worst totally malignant. When you have people ranting, and they do rant, about somebody else's vision of poetry, what becomes important isn't the particular vision, because a vision will reveal itself for good and ill in the poems it generates, but the rant.

Let's talk about what has been termed “workshop poetry.” Is there a problem with the poetry that university programs produce?

That term is a misnomer, and it's an unfair attack on a lot of well-meaning and hard-working people. If you use the term “workshop poetry” to describe what's actually written in the writing programs, you have to take into account that it's being written by poets who are in the process of realizing themselves. Although this isn't always true, what's produced is really a kind of apprentice poetry, and you can't expect apprentice poetry to be terribly exalting. The problem is that the term is also used, wrongly, to describe a particular style that has evolved over the past few decades, a very loose, often talky kind of free verse poetry that doesn't have anything particularly interesting about it in terms of its perceptions, its music, or the movement of its thought. There's no question that it's a very mediocre kind of poetry, and that it's the prevalent mode of our time. But if you take the trouble to look closely, the prevalent mode of any literary moment is always rather appalling. We get so used to reading in anthologies that we don't notice how rigorously selective they are, how much pure drek has been left behind. If you try to read the vast majority of poems that came out of the Romantic movement, you'd die of boredom, and the fact that the poems were written in meters doesn't help at all. I started writing in the Fifties, and although I had no confidence whatsoever in my aesthetic capacities, I felt instinctively that most of the poems I read were empty, dead, and when I go back now and read them, I know I was right. The fact that many of the poets now who are perpetrating bad poetry come out of the writing programs is just an historical accident. Poets will always come out of something, agorae or coffee houses or universities. The good poems that are being written now, the ones that aren't in the prevalent mode, that aren't mediocre in any way, are also, for the most part, being written by people from the programs.

Earlier, you mentioned the poet's toolbox. Do you consider the university an effective place for the poet to learn to use that?

Yes, I think there are elements of the composition of poetry that can be taught. I also think there are things, important things, that you pick up by osmosis. Of course most of the equipment you have in your toolbox you pick up by reading other poets. But you can only absorb something when you're ready to, when you've struggled through to the point where you're ready to understand how to do it; in a way, you don't even notice the thing until then. I think that the workshop can accelerate all of this, at least for many people. For some people it doesn't do anything, but nothing would; they drop out and stop trying to be poets, or at least professional poets. One hopes they go on reading and writing, and as far as I can tell, they often do. For the people who keep at it, the workshop helps them to understand the principles behind various poetic practices. I think that's important, being able to ask yourself more clearly what's involved in what you're trying to do, what you can only dream of doing, or of what's right there as the next thing to try. How can you generate out of your own system of composition what you admire in other poetry? We always feel we're working by trial and error; we don't have to think about what we know how to do well. It's moving into the unknown that requires labor, working at the front end of your conceptual apparatus, and this requires, often, the kind of articulation of principle I'm talking about. I find being in the workshop can often be exhilarating; there's a real feeling of discovery, and when one of the participants breaks through, into their own voice, into that first poem that's a real poem, it's very exciting. I'm always intrigued, too, by the delicate mix of competition and cooperation in the workshops. Everyone's pushing themselves, they're aware of what all their friends are doing, but you hardly ever see anything but delight when somebody does something well. That might be a good lesson against the insane competitiveness of much of our society, if nothing else.

About poetry in the general university education—what role do you see contemporary poetry playing in educating students? It seems as though we have found a place in the curriculum for the historical modes of poetry; we know how to teach Romanticism or Modernism, for example. But outside of the workshop, what do you think is the role of teaching contemporary poetry?

I like to give readings at colleges where the audience consists of mostly students who are coerced into being there. It's an intriguing challenge to try to show the kids that poetry can be something that doesn't exist only in the classroom, and that it isn't as forbidding as they think it is, as they're taught to think it is, that it might even have something to do with their lives. You say we know how to teach Romantic and modern poetry, but do we really? How do we teach Romantic poetry to a freshman or a sophomore who's never voluntarily read a poem? I know some terrific teachers, I'm often awed by how good they are at teaching poetry to younger students, but for the most part what goes on in the classroom is a little sad, because the kids come out feeling that all they've done is finished a course, taken an exam, and they never look at a poem again. Once someone becomes an English major, of course, and becomes a specialist in literature, then we're pretty sure we know how to teach them, although I'm not even sure of that. But before that, what are we teaching? I feel very strongly that contemporary poetry is, or could be, the best possible introduction to poetry in general. If you expose people to the poems that are their poems, that are written for them, for them in their moment of history, and show them that you don't need to read a history of literature to understand them, you just have to listen and let them happen to you, then you can go on to show them how poems from the past can work in similar ways in illuminating themselves to themselves, and can even give pleasure. We could use the analogy of music. You don't introduce kids to music by playing them Bach fugues. First you hear the lullabies your mother sings, then you hear popular music, and you learn very quickly what music is. Then if you want to go on to classical music, you do; there's no need to study musical theory, and even if you stay with popular music, you're in that realm, you're in music, and that's important. I think poetry can be learned the same way, and in fact I think it is, to a great extent; you hear nursery rhymes, you hear childrens’ poems, and everything's all right until someone starts to teach you what poetry really is, and how you have to study it, and you immediately let yourself fall away from it. I think it's a wonderful thing, which to a great extent has grown out of the graduate programs, that so many poets are brought to universities to give readings. When I went to college there were almost never poetry readings; in my years at Penn, we had one reading, by e. e. cummings. I think that reading to a university audience is good for the poets, too. Somehow in our recent past, the study of poetry began to be regarded as the history of poetry. When the Romantics were writing, they were certainly conscious of their tradition, but so was their audience, and both they and the audience were acutely aware that the poetry was speaking for the issues they were living, and for the kind of sensibilities they were interested in. There was a period in American poetry, at least in what was then thought of as the mainstream, when people actually believed they were writing for the canon, that awful, but I suppose useful concept—I used it myself a few minutes ago—as though what you were doing when you wrote a poem was sort of tacking it onto the front end of this great historical locomotive called literature. But that's not what poetry is at all.

We've often been accused, as poets, of talking only to other poets, or writing only for other poets. When you speak to a general audience, or even to a class of non-poets, what does a poem educate in the general audience? You've said that poetry can educate emotion. In what ways can poetry educate the emotion of the general audience?

When you give a reading to a group of people who aren't experienced in poetry, at least a reading that goes well, several things happen. First, partway into the reading, there's a feeling of relief that comes from the audience, that this isn't as bad as they thought it was going to be, that it'll be an hour they might get through without dying of boredom. Then, if things go really well, there's a kind of excitement that begins to set in. Not that anybody's dancing on the chairs, but you can sense that the kids are with you, that they're really listening, and that they understand what the poems are saying. It doesn't happen every time and it certainly doesn't happen to every kid, but you can tell, and afterwards a few of them will sometimes overcome their shyness and come up to thank you, which is wonderful. I remember the first time I was reading to high school students—this was in the early seventies—a group of kids came up afterwards and asked if I'd like to write some lyrics for their rock group. I thought that was a terrific compliment. There's no question that the kids can hear they're being spoken to, that something in them is being spoken for. What that something is is probably terribly complicated. You used the expression “educating the emotions … of the audience,” and I think that's very germane. That's really what education is about, at least on the highest level; teaching us the part that what I'll call our moral imagination plays in our emotions. That's what a poem does, it bridges a gap, it makes people aware that their everyday emotions, the feelings they have as they move through their own experiences, are a part of a realm they aren't usually conscious of. Poetry, or good poetry, necessarily deals with moral questions, if nothing else with questions of truth, and it deals at the same time with the most common emotions; it puts the two together in a way that can be immediately grasped. There's something else, too. I tried to talk before about how the moral realm and formal realm come together in poems, and I think that this is something that happens to an audience, too, although they're not necessarily entirely conscious of it. When a poem is speaking to someone, I should say singing to someone, they begin to realize that their own experience can be a part of the formal realm, too. They can hear themselves being sung to themselves, the way Odysseus was in the Odyssey. It's an amazing thing. And you can see that this can go back to what I was saying about the use of contemporary poetry in education. To find yourself being sung into a formal universe, you have to realize that what's being sung is an identity different and greater from the one you believed you had. We usually conceive of our identities, however involved with them we are, as entities that just plod through the world, but to hear your experience moved into form, into a poetry that both sings and implies a fuller, more vivid consciousness, has to give you a different vision of yourself. As I say, I wouldn't want to have to say how much of this is conscious in kids who aren't experienced in poetry, or even to people who are, but I think it must be something like this that happens when a poem moves us.

Let's clarify the term “moral imagination” as it relates to poetry. Do you mean an individual's moral imagination or a greater moral imagination?

In the simplest sense, you could say that it's just the individual's consciousness of participating in an imagination that's greater than his or her own. As long as a person believes that he or she is only an individual sensibility, with an insular imagination, there's no reason to be anything but solipsistic, egoistic, self-protective. I think the basic force of community depends on members of a group participating in a shared imagination. That's a rather basic definition of culture. When this starts to break down, when the imagination is neglected, or perverted, and people don't have any sense of participating in the real moral life of the group, then the community itself begins to suffer. You can see this happening in Yugoslavia now, where people are defining themselves ethnically rather than culturally, or, even more interestingly from the point of view of poetry, in relation to their identities in language, because that's often the way people experience their social identity most intensely. Communism offered a shared image of society; the problem of course was that the image was imposed, it didn't grow out of the actual cultural imagination of the people, and so when communism collapsed, everyone ran as quickly as possible to other identities, other imaginations of community, with the chaos we see now. I suppose we could say the same thing about the split in American society between various social groups. We tend to see the divisive issues in America in terms of race, and race certainly plays a key role in our social anguish, but I think that the breakdown of our educational system, and so of any kind of shared imagination, is even more frightening, and will finally cause us more pain.

Do poets disturb the moral identity or the moral imagination? So are we talking here about a kind of ethical action on the part of poetry?

There's no question that poetry is, or can be, an ethical act. And as far as poetry disturbing the moral identity, as I said before, I think there are times when it does, when it should, and times perhaps where it might have different functions. Right now, we seem to be at the end of a period in which one of the primary functions of poetry was to break down what were conceived to be oppressive or inhibiting social forms. Poetry in that what already seems ancient epoch was constantly trying to explode received identities, received ideas of imagination. It seems now, though, that we might be going into a time when what poetry and art has to do is to emphasize the essential community of people. Since we don't have any grand ideas anymore of ways to perfect societies, maybe our task is to try to make the social shapes we already have more viable, more just. I don't know how this all might manifest itself in poetry, or whether it might have manifested itself already, but clearly we're in a moment of terrific historical change, and one way or another our poetry and our art is going to enact all of that.

Charles Altieri (essay date Summer 1992)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7321

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 who will decide on the criteria for judging relative richness. But that question may be finessable if we take the time to adapt our concepts to what the poets do. That will give us concrete cases to judge, where we can hope to find terms for assessment more general than those developed by either side.

In this spirit I will take up the issue of subjective agency in order to argue that some of the best contemporary poetry provides modes of thinking at once more subtle and more conceptually provocative than we find in the prevailing theoretical stances. All the theoretical instruments seem to agree that our culture must develop versions of agency that neither return to romantic notions of a deep-buried and alienated self desperate for expression nor replace that inwardness by reducing subjectivity to subjection within linguistic and social codes. Yet, as I have argued on other occasions, contemporary theory has become so dependent on poststructural concepts that it lacks the resources to develop an adequate third choice on this issue. Given its biases, this theorizing can do little more than return to the ironies of subjection, idealize a heterogeneity whose interactions it cannot account for, and produce claims about resisting hegemonic orders that by now seem little more than a rhetorical antidialectic already swallowed up within the play of market simulacra.1 Our poets do better, I will argue, because they envision subjective agency in positive terms as a specific mode of dynamic intentionality inseparable from how we inhabit the sentences we speak. Developing in their own way lines of thinking explored by Nietzsche and by Wittgenstein, these poets offer a perspective that frees us from having to locate subjectivity in any specific image or narrative account. For they realize that such projections entail chains of substitutions and displacements that keep deferring that self until it can only appear a deeply buried and alienated principle.

My central figures will be John Ashbery and C. K. Williams because I find their work the fullest contemporary efforts to develop this alternative view of subjective agency (which we might call “deictic intentionality,” for reasons that I hope become clear). Where their predecessors sought strong images as locales for positing identities, these poets explore the subjective force projected in deictics and other shifters, hoping that how one establishes one's relation to utterances and situations provides a sufficient grounding for the range of identities and identifications that constitutes subjective life. Taking my lead from Wittgenstein, I will stress their self-conscious foregrounding of the operators “now” and “this” (and their correlates) to establish expressive energies and assume responsibilities that cannot be treated simply as ideological functions subjecting what projects itself as subject. Instead “now” and “this” prove fundamentally relational, locating agency in the specific ways that persons apply the range of sentences they have learned to speak. Personal agency then resides not in some deep underlying content for the self but in paths that emerge through what the sentences carry as desire and how they come to define basic commitments shaping future paths and relationships. Ashbery will be our poet defining the resources of the lyric “really now,” an expression that enables desire to resist those alienating idealizations that occur when lovers seek images of their own relationship. Then Williams becomes our poet of the “this”: his long line defines through time how the will gives affirmative qualities to the now, so the line becomes an image of dynamic subjectivity working through what would subject it if it turned from relational activity to more specular self-reflexive states. …

I do not think any philosopher gives us as fully developed a rendering of subjective agency immanent to the indexical uses of language, yet thereby capable of establishing long-term aspects of identity for the agents. But in order to understand and provide a context for this achievement we must turn to the history of ideas so as to clarify the specific pressures on contemporary sensibilities that Ashbery is responding to and to indicate some of the conceptual possibilities that he extends into specific imaginative figures. Then we will shift to what Ashbery's work can be said to have enabled, poetically and psychologically, in the recent poetry of C. K. Williams, where the “really now” becomes the basic active principle for a full range of subjective states, including those that involve duration.

There is a sense in which the basic traits of Ashberyan agency—its awareness of the will's inseparability from multiple affective states, its attaching of intentionality to bodily dispositions, its developing expressive capacities not bound to self-images or concepts, and its aligning the psyche's mobility with a complex temporality fundamental to any rich sense of what love demands—fits the best poststructural thinking on the subject. This stems from his carrying out a fundamentally Nietzschean project. But unlike even Derrida, who remains caught in an impasse fundamental to that poststructural theory, Ashbery can activate the full implications of that project. Before we can develop those implications, however, we must get clear on the dilemma within poststructural accounts of subjective agency.

Poststructuralist thinkers break from structuralism in large part because they recognize the need to speak of singular expressive versions of the “really now,” but the analytic terms they continue from structuralism afford them no positive means by which to envision that “now” as a way for that subjectivity to achieve full articulation. Instead the entire enterprise is haunted by the models of subjection developed by Lacan and by Althusser—the one in terms of family romance, the other in terms of the interpellation that gives agents a place in the social order. Both perspectives prove disturbingly essentialist, asserting necessary structures for the psyche which divide subjective agency from itself and force it to live its imaginative life in thrall to some other that it internalizes as the means of attributing to itself powers of subjectivity. Lacan stresses the mirroring function of the mother, which gives the child a sense of an inner life tragically dependent on its outer reflections. And Althusser makes the feeling of subjectivity depend on our internalizing identities embedded in social roles by hegemonic ideological structures. Derrida and Foucault are more abstract, but perhaps also even more trapped, since for them the depersonalizing force is a property of all categories: categories and hence concepts force third-person frameworks necessary for intelligibility on first-person states and thus necessarily banish subjective agency to the margins of a public world. So the best that poststructural theory can do is preserve this sense of singularity by locating it exclusively in what might be termed a working negativity—in Lacan's speaking subject kept distinct from the ego, in Foucault's emphasis on creating a life that is beautiful to contemplate for itself, and in Derrida's emphasis on a singular “yes” articulated by a working that parasitically plays itself against all determinate meaning. Any more ambitious claims seem blocked by the very structure of semantic form and psychic development. So while modes of subjection change over time, the fact of subjection constantly subsuming subjective negativity remains constant. …

This is where Wittgenstein must enter our story. While he shares Nietzsche's sense of will as immanent to situations and as too directly involved in action-orientations to be subject to scrutiny by the reason, Wittgenstein's own asceticism enables him to purify these ideas so that there is no possibility of projecting fantasies of one's own power on to the public order (in part because such fantasies betray a misunderstanding of both the privacy of will and the structures forming public order). Then Wittgenstein will lead us to the full import of C. K. Williams's extending the “really now” into a mobile and fluent controlling line that gives subjective agency a duration and a gathering power without having to attribute to it any mysterious inner life.

Wittgenstein can achieve a more radical and more workable sense of subjective agency than Nietzsche in part because he manages to reverse Nietzsche's perspectivism. Where Nietzsche collapses the knowing subject who takes responsibility for propositions into the willing subject constructing the world in accord with specific values, Wittgenstein proposes a sharp distinction between the willing and the knowing subject. There are domains in which the ego shrinks to an extensionless point, its agency subsumed under the task of description or under the rules of language games. In such cases one can imagine the I as an eye that takes in a visual field but that also understands itself enclosed within what it sees. At the other pole there is a willing subject that as will cannot be enclosed within the visual field: how the eye feels about what it sees and how it gives significance or projections to that field does not appear within the scene. Rather, developing Nietzsche's sense of will's immanence within behavioral orientations, Wittgenstein locates the force of will in what frames everything that can be described. Willing is not a specular projection so much as an overall disposition, measured by how one engages the “now,” not by who one imagines oneself to be.

It is not easy to grasp a sense of the agent as at once attentive to the objective and irreducibly a locus of subjective will. But we get considerable help from the figure of boundary conditions that Wittgenstein uses to connect ethics and aesthetics to the transcendental nature of logical form. In each of these domains we must allow sharp distinctions between what can be said and what must be shown. What can be said presupposes certain lines of connection between language and the world. But we cannot speak about those containing frames because any claim we made about them would have to presuppose exactly what it purported to describe. Logic provides the most striking example of the two conditions. Logic gives the form of propositions, which means there cannot be meaningful propositions about logic itself; there can only be displays of what logical form does in its establishing boundary conditions for what can count as truths. Ethics and aesthetics rely on analogous distinctions, but there the nature of individual wills takes the place of the boundary force of logical form. In aesthetics the framing condition requires treating the object as “seen sub specie aeternitatis from outside” rather than from within the midst of other objects, so that one perceives it together with space and time rather than in space and time. In ethics, on the other hand, the boundary condition becomes the state of the subject as the force which composes values for its specific moment in space and time:

Things acquire “significance” only through their relation to my will. As my idea is the world, in the same way my will is the world-will. The will is an attitude of the subject to the world.

(Wittgenstein, Notebooks 83–88)

If good or bad acts of the will do alter the world, it can only be the limits of the world that they alter, not the facts, not what can be expressed by means of language.

In short their effect must be that it becomes an altogether different world. It must, so to speak, wax and wane as a whole.

The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.

(Wittgenstein, Tractatus 6.43)

This version of the willing subject now allows us a conceptual framework for showing how an agent's “really now” can bear values and offer a sense of identity and connection even though there can be no adequate descriptive account of such actions. What cannot be thematized can nonetheless be recognized in the intensities that engage descriptions and in the ways agents take responsibility for their actions. In lyric poetry it then becomes possible to imagine the line itself as this bounding condition, at once displaying the contours defining our intensities and providing an expressive register that establishes a sense of public responsibility for how one engages the now. Or so we are led to believe by the working of C. K. Williams's long, sinuous line in his Flesh and Blood. Here Ashbery's “really now” must play out its values in a much less interpersonal, much less gentle reflective space. In Williams, this “now” begins as a site of intense demand, often accompanied by a painful and irreducible sense of his own anguish, alienated both from others and from his own efforts to get his passions under the control of his judgments. Yet it proves to be precisely this sense of risk and pain that drives Williams to a fuller articulation of the elements of that “really now” which poetry can capture, and which in turn can give poetry alternatives to the endless displacements that accompany all efforts at specular self-representation. The long line allows a naturalness of conversation folded into the intimacy of internal dialogue, so that lyric speech even at its most expansive seems entirely rooted in momentary observations and reflections on the implications of those observations. Williams's long line affords an expressive register combining a remarkable mobility of investments with a naturalness allowing poetry to seem simply ordinary speech at its most articulate, and hence giving the lyric will a sense of being grounded despite the restless urgencies of reflective consciousness.2 Putting the same observations in philosophical terms, we might say that this line renders a Wittgensteinian model of subjective agency because it comes to manifest a force, something like Spinoza's conatus, which cannot be made the object of an image or of imaginary projections but which nonetheless makes continually present the contours of an insistent expressive will inseparable from a knowing subject bound entirely to the facts of a shareable world. By tracking where will can be “really now” as the mind tries to contour itself to the facts of his world (including facts about how his mind works), Williams's poems exemplify a struggle to prevent overdetermining those facts by interpretive constructs, and thus underdetermining personal agency by trapping itself within the vacancies of self-consciousness.

All this abstraction requires examples. Let us begin with the tensions that lead Williams to appreciate fully how he might locate subjective agency within fundamentally Wittgensteinian parameters. Insistent on acknowledging the mind's inescapable self-divisions while refusing himself any consoling images or abstract beliefs, Williams finds himself facing at one extreme the infinite regresses of a radical insecurity, at the other a fierce lust for the very self his need keeps displacing. This is the insecurity at its most intense:

as though you'd lost possession of the throat and then the voice or what it is that wills the voice
to carry thoughtlessly the thought through tone and word, and then the thoughts themselves are lost
and the mind that thought the thoughts begins to lose itself, despairing of itself and of its voice,
this infected voice that infects itself with its despair, this voice of terror that won't stop,
that lays the trap of doubt, this pit of doubt, this voiceless throat that swallows us in doubt.


The long line's apparently endless doubling of all the key terms makes it seem as if language could eat away at itself endlessly, destroying the voice that one desires it to mediate. But the greater the doubt, the greater our “fiercest lust of self toward self,” here defined in relation to resentment, that most Nietzschean of subjects:

What is there which so approaches an art form in its stubborn patience, its devotion to technique,
to elegant refinement: that relentless searching for receptacles to capture content and expression?
.....My slights, affronts: how I shuffle and reshuffle them, file them, index, code, and collate.
Justification, accusation: I permutate, elaborate, combine, condense, refocus, re-refine.


Now what threatens the ego also calls forth constructive energies so intense that the lyric line must take on tortuous extensions of its own traditional capacities. The rush of feelings generated by resentment proliferates verbs, eventually isolating them from nouns and pushing the verse against the margin so that it must rely on syllabic breaks normally found only in prose. Yet we gradually gain substantial rewards for such energy, since the line affords so complex a frame that the demands of consciousness become almost comic, without losing their intensity. Thus the risk of losing a composed voice becomes the means for finding another by mocking one's own efforts to find a righteous pose. On one level then the analogy to art is ironic. Resentment elicits the perversely formal energies of the artist while refusing it any content adequate to the self's inordinate responses to what it feels as threat. But on another level that lust for self discovers what must be its necessary principle of investment—not in any specific content but in how the line as expressive force contours itself to (and perhaps as) the psychic movements generated by the need for a self-image. The line takes on the task of providing continuity as a dynamic drive maintaining the will's investments, while at the same time it makes visible the threats continually haunting those efforts: what promises expression also keeps undoing itself in its greed to capture and balance all the elements informing its own productive energies.

When Williams brings these opposite impulses together, he manages to establish the full thematic significance for his own sense of line as emblem for style, quintessentially in the ways that “Conscience” once again engages a central Nietzschean theme:

That moment when the high-wire walker suddenly begins to falter, wobble, sway, arms flailing,
that breathtakingly rapid back-and-forth aligning-realigning of the displaced center of gravity,
weight thrown this way, no, too far; that way, no, too far again, until the movements themselves
of compensation have their rhythms established so that there's no way possibly to stop now …
that very moment, wheeling back and forth, back and forth, appeal, repeal, negation,
just before he lets it go and falls to deftly catch himself going by the wire, somersaulting up,
except for us it never ceases, testing moments of the mind-weight this way, back and back and forth,
no re-establishing of balance, no place to start again, just this, this force, this gravity and fear.


By opening with this sudden emergence of the moment, Williams beautifully defines the issues by establishing the force of unpredictable events as the threat to voice that drives conscience to its full intensity. Thus the analogy to the high-wire walker's beginning to falter takes on a double role. It establishes a dramatic focus for reflection, and it calls attention to the mind's need for determinate content, hence for some analogy in order to suture the wound that the sudden eruption of events opens up. Yet the sense of time's pressure will not relent. Notice the repeated “that,” which displays a mind seeking to fix itself by setting reference points as its boundary conditions. In the very effort to fix stationary points, however, each “that” phrase collapses because of the weight it must bear, both within the analogy and in relation to the demand for analogy. Nonetheless, by facing this risk of falling, the poem ultimately discovers its own way of “somersaulting up,” since it manages to shift from those “thats” to a sense of rhythm within the balancing that gives conscience its access to a constantly shifting “now.” This sense requires surrendering any hope for specific stopping points (which I take to be figures for the ego's desires for specific images of itself), so that one can reconcile oneself to the irreducible and inescapable demands of conscience. Even the analogy must collapse, destroyed by that painful “except us” marking the mind's difference from any satisfying allegorical representations of itself. Unable then to rely on images, self-reflection finds itself forced back on the pun in “gravity” as the ironic price exacted by the effort to take oneself seriously. Personal identity founded on demands like these cannot be separated from a constant sense of fear, a sense left beautifully indeterminate at and as the poem's conclusion: “no re-establishing of balance, no place to start again, just this, this force, this gravity and fear.”

At the heart of this indeterminacy, however, we find a determining directional force that may suffice for handling that inescapable fear. The repetition of “this,” grounded in an intricate syntactic balance and following a string of negations, locates in simple assertion a responsiveness to the motions of mind and shifts in its contents far more supple than any analogy. At first these repeated negations insist on the return of doubt's voiceless throat as the analogy collapses. Dreaming of gravity seems inseparable from having a constant fear of falling. For taking identity as a serious issue and allowing conscience its nagging voices submits all ideas about the self to judgments about truth that lack any possible grounds for making the necessary assessments. Not only does gravity then elicit direct fear, it also opens the possibility that conscience makes fools of us all by producing the ironic suspicion that the fears we feel are themselves only stage props in a circus act we create in order to claim that consciousness had some determining power in our struggles.3 But there remains a referent for “this” which is not under the regime of truth, since there remains its relationship to the actual and metaphoric force of the line's ability to contour itself even to such gravities because it does not rely on images of itself. Instead the line literally constitutes a gravity in its own activity as it attaches to destructive forces, establishing at least an intimacy and directness sharply opposed to the mind's efforts earlier in the poem to make the repeated “that” sustain a distanced balance. Thus there may be no need for a place elsewhere from which one might start again. While the effort to negotiate the mind's desires for gravity and the fears which this generates may strip away all projected stabilities, there remains available a Cartesian response to the poem's version of Cartesian doubt: the poem cannot doubt its own passionate investment in the process of defining those doubts. Yet it need not follow Descartes's way of locating the “I am” purely in some inner process. Here the cogito finds a home within the activity of language, in the justness of how that concluding string of deictics adapts to the mind's desperation. Here too a new level of metaphoric thinking opens up, one based not on analogy but on the interpretation of the very processes undergone within the poem. There need be no place from which to begin, since the tracking of beginnings takes us beyond abstract possibilities to a place continually in the making. Where William Carlos Williams idealized no ideas about the thing but the thing itself, this Williams locates the necessary alternative to ideas in the mind's coming to feel the force of the gravity it constantly produces.

Not all of the later Williams is as grim as this, or as Cartesian. Once a principle of gravity is discovered, the poet is free to explore the workings of desire that the line makes articulate, and to celebrate the modes of thinking that the line protects from self-defensive ironies. So we might say that the strength of his view of agency depends on finding an ethics within his aesthetics, or better, of discovering how ethical possibilities are woven into his understanding of lyrical intensities. To elaborate this I will conclude by developing what I take to be the four basic features of subjective agency that Williams makes vital within his poetry and therefore makes vital as emblems for reflecting on how we dispose of our investments in every sphere of life.

First, Williams's line offers intricate and diverse means of extending the “really now” from thematic statement into an actual condition of lyric investments in a wide range of situations. In its struggling against the Cartesianism that calls it into being, this line becomes the linguistic bearer of a dynamic intentionality locating values and a sense of identity not in concepts or in images but only in the qualities of engagement its utterances establish. And intentionality itself becomes so intimately involved in linguistic activity that there can be a strong sense of subjectivity with only minimal needs to project a deep inner life for that subject, and thus to pursue an authenticity based on self-reflection. Instead, both immediate desires and long-term identifications become inseparable from the specific ways that verbs heap up on one another, that complex syntactic balances develop, or that descriptions move through supple ranges of register—all freed from the need for supplementary allegories.

A second important feature of Flesh and Blood emerges in relation to this freedom from allegorical supplements. Because there is so little need to go beyond the life of words in situations, and so powerful a means of establishing significance without relying on general interpretive schema, Williams recuperates an old power rendered problematic in romanticism, the power to make eloquent discursive statement guarded against the need for irony simply by the cleanness of the assertion and the sense of character which it carries. Rather than lament the abstractness of discursive expressions (opposed by romanticism to a concreteness that makes the allegorizing impulse defensible because it can be transformed into living symbols), the poet is free to treat discursiveness as simply one of the ways that this mobile line organizes its investments so that we can engage the considerable desires that we invest directly in processes of abstract reflection. So long as we focus on the movement of desire, discursiveness is as concrete as images, since both are simply aspects of what Williams calls “vehicles” of mental life. Moreover, Williams's best poems, like “Failure” (23), make that discursiveness seem itself the mind's most complex tonal register, since it can play the clarity of precise psychological analysis against a range of second-order emotions that occur as one tries to come to terms with the success of one's descriptions: “Less love, yes, but what was love: a febrile, restless, bothersome trembling to continue to possess / what one was only partly certain was worth wanting anyway, and if the reservoir of hope is depleted. …” The more the poet accommodates himself to the loss of love, the more despondent he becomes about the only alternative available to him, even as he testifies to its power.

Third, Williams's supple discursiveness seems to me crucial to contemporary poetry because of the relationship to subject matter that his version of subjective agency allows. This point can be most clearly developed by a negative example. It seems obvious to many of us now that the pastoral lyricism so prevalent in the past two decades marked a crisis in poetic content. Committed to satisfying romantic emotions and exalting lyrical sensibility, poetry found itself unable to handle urban and political materials. Only scenic renderings of moods or natural analogues for states of feeling seemed to allow expressive energies that did not collapse into self-defensive irony or melodramatic bombast. And even these preserves for lyricism seemed to require the supplement of vague metaphysical yearnings, sustained mostly by a vocabulary of stars, stones, and associated darknesses. Ashbery provided one vein of relief from that situation, only to become absorbed by his own somewhat narrow self-reflexive lyricism. Williams provides a better way because he shifts the burden of lyricism from what the content offers or how metaphors bind the psyche to aspects of the world to a concern for how the line's shifting affects can nonetheless engage a full range of subjects and thereby establish a fully ranging subjectivity.

The resulting sense of art as a greed for the world, and an exercise in complex digestive mechanisms for satisfying that greed, tempts one to draw analogies between Williams's work and the ambitions of contemporary photography. But Williams's line can continually comment on and qualify its own needs as well as develop intimate attachments with what it engages. Probably his richest commentary on this hunger for the world consists in the elegant gesture of finding that as he tracks a simple scene of his wife going out into the snow he needs a second poem, as if not even the long line could gather in one poem the range of feelings that she elicits in this context (31). For another, more elaborately self-conscious staging of the line as carrying investment within an omnivorous, attentive sensibility we can turn to “Dawn,” Williams's signature version of a secular nature lyric fully responsive to modernist concerns for the sentence as a medium, yet also profoundly committed to making that medium a mode of accepting the quotidian constraints that were modernism's deadly enemy:

The first morning of mist after days of draining, unwavering heat along the shore: a breath:
a plume of sea fog actually visible, coherent, intact, with all of the quieter mysteries
of the sea implicit in its inconspicuous, unremarkable gathering in the weary branches
of the drought-battered spruce on its lonely knoll; it thins now, sidles through the browning needles,
is penetrated sharply by a sparrow swaying precipitously on a drop-glittering twiglet,
then another bird, unseen, is there, a singer, chattering, and another, long purls of warble,
which also from out of sight insinuate themselves into that dim, fragile, miniature cloud,
already now, almost with reluctance, beginning its dissipation in the overpowering sunlight.


As in most of Williams, every moment of pleasure or shape is on the verge of disappearance. But the long line provides an intricate gravity for that flux, holding it before the eye, then treasuring all the modifications that time produces. Look again at what happens to the breath here as it first transforms into fog, then allows fog to modulate into a range of its properties; then, as the sense of “now” intensifies, the line can shift from attending to a single sparrow into a state in which it yields to the slow unfolding of unseen but equally real and equally intense presences, mysterious not for what they suggest metaphorically or symbolically but for how they reveal the complex contours of a representative effort to have one's words open into one's actual situation. Finally the poem's single sentence comes to rest in an observation that could also serve as a perfect accounting for its own powers: given the light it sheds, the line can accept its own dissipation while yielding to a world whose mystery it has managed to echo in its own movements.

Finally, Williams manages to make his experiments in agency ultimately sustain an overall model of value, defined most fully in the elegy for Paul Zweig that concludes Flesh and Blood. “Le Petit Salvié” faces what is by now the standard issue for all elegies—how can one find means of giving meaning to death and continuity to one's own life in a culture deprived of all consoling stories? How can one honor the imperatives to mourn without succumbing to the death in life that is melancholia? The first half of the sequence develops three basic features of this mourning that the poem must come to terms with. From the very beginning Williams calls attention to fundamental opposites within human temporality that become in escapably oppressive as one faces the death of someone one loves. At one pole the encounter with death proceeds excruciatingly slowly, as attention fixes on each feature of the person and his illness. But given the quickness of life's passing, nothing can be slow enough. Second, such elemental paradoxes tempt one to accept transcendental resolutions for that pain, only to force one to a double dilemma. There can be no such escape for us: the transcendental is mere fantasy. And even this yielding to secular truth brings none of the comfort once imagined by Enlightenment thinkers. While clear-sightedness may afford us a sense of truth, it cannot bring conviction to that truth, and hence it cannot help us align the will to the one world we have (poem 7). Then, in the central poem of the entire sequence, that failure to find a place for will opens strong temptations to turn to the consolations of romantic inwardness, since at the least one can identify with the intensity of a divided self: “Now we have the air, transparent, and the lucid psyche, and gazing inward, always inward, to the wound” (77).

For my purposes it is crucial that we see how dead the line becomes in these central poems. The line still contains the complex play of mind, but it cannot provide any direction for mind by sustaining complex syntactic figures or opening into intricate, expansive relations. For example, when Williams registers the failure of the secular intellectual position to bring conviction, the line breaks down into ellipses and repetitions. Similarly, the line I have just quoted can do no more than struggle with paratactic connections bound to the pain of repetition. And even when the second half of the poem turns from that inwardness to alternative imaginative frameworks, the line remains relatively dead, often caught up in abstraction and able at best to name details without putting them into intricate motions. (Williams's poems on Zweig's wife seem especially paralyzed, probably because the speaking voice is trapped into attempting to resolve through another what it has not yet been able to handle for itself.)

Gradually two basic strategies emerge for alleviating that stiffness, each a way of learning to say once again, “Here's where we are.” One way leads back to Zweig in memories, now become a mode of speaking to the present; the other requires developing a transformed version of the relation between “slowly” and “quickly,” now understood as the fusing of grief and gladness about what was powerful enough in life to elicit the grief (poem 16). On that basis Williams tries a summary poem in which the line is once again allowed its full gathering power, as we see in the following example:

the circles of community that intersect within us, hold us, touch us always with their presence,
even as, today, mourning, grief, themselves becoming memory, there still is that within us which endures,
not in possession of the single soul in solitude, but in the covenants of affection we embody,
the way an empty house embodies elemental presences, and the way, attentive, we can sense them.
Breath held, heart held, body stilled, we attend, and they are there, covenant, elemental presence,
and the voice, in the lightest footfall, the eternal wind, leaf and earth, the constant voice.


But neither strategy quite suffices, primarily because the resolving voice here comes too much from the outside, from the will to adapt rather than from an actual shifting of concrete alignments. So the sequence needs one more poem, not to contradict or resist the thematic resolution but to extend it into the line's full voicing in its own right. And by acknowledging that challenge Williams finally brings together the full powers of subjective agency whose various facets this volume had been exploring:

“The immortalities of the moment spin and expand; they seem to have no limits, yet time passes.
These last days here are bizarrely compressed, busy, and yet full of suppressed farewells …”
The hilly land you loved, lucerne and willow, the fields of butterfly and wasp and flower.
Farewell the crumbling house, barely held together by your ministrations, the shed, the pond.
Farewell your dumb French farmer's hat, your pads of yellow paper, your joyful, headlong scrawl.
The coolness of the woods, the swallow's swoop and whistle, the confident call of the owl at night.
Scents of dawn, the softening all-night fire, char, ash, warm embers in the early morning chill.
The moment holds, you move across the path and go, the light lifts, breaks: goodbye, my friend, farewell.


“Farewell” cannot simply be thought or rationalized or even quoted, as this poem initially attempts. Instead Williams stakes his entire sequence on its capacity to mark a substantial difference between quoting and voicing. Actually two fundamental differences emerge. The first is marked by the movement from suppressed farewell to its repeated utterance, to its final statement where, oddly, we first grasp the full etymological force of the word, as if only the repeated voicing that memorializes the particularity of this friendship could evoke the full ritual force of this piece of public language. That union of particular and abstract then gets reinforced by the second difference, set in motion by the direct addresses that modulate from the “you” to a series of highly particularized apostrophes. Here the long line's capacity to hold what continues to flow takes the form of returning to the “you,” a “you” after its apostrophes, but now also a “you” that can be a form of self-address. The entire elegiac process brings the speaker's grief so intimately into alignment with both the setting and the resources of language that the speaker can in effect also let himself go. He is able to speak the full good wishes of “farewell” because he can at the same time live out the richness of his memories while loosening their hold on him. There is no other route to conviction, because there is no other way that the moment can hold so as to align the speaking subject with the full import of his language.4 But once that moment does hold, the poem's farewell also becomes a way of sublating the dreams of lyrical inwardness that for romanticism had to supplement a conception of language from which they could not but be alienated.


  1. See especially chapter 7 of my Canons and Consequences, which takes up both the academic scene represented by Paul Smith's Discerning the Subject and the philosophical work of Foucault and Derrida. In addition one will find a good deal more material, handled brilliantly, insisting that poststructural thinking is bound to negative views of the subject in Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen's Lacan: The Absolute Master. Marjorie Perloff is the critic perhaps most sensitive to the implications of the split between theory and sensibility, and she offers a good critique of romantic models of lyrical subjectivity as they affect contemporary poetry in her Poetic License, esp. 63. Also important for my case in a somewhat different way is Charles Bernstein's “Optimism and Critical Excess (Process).” Bernstein's model for a contemporary poetry and poetics informed by “theory” is certainly sophisticated in its own right, but it pays a substantial price for that sophistication by being unable to get beyond the limitations of the prevailing modes within that theory. Bernstein ends up with another version of Derridean errant singularity. Recognizing this helps open the way to realizing that it may not be the most experimental contemporary poets who provide the richest engagement in distinctively contemporary intellectual issues.

  2. The importance of Williams's line emerges most clearly if we see how he at once takes up and extends an ambition I think fundamental to much of the best contemporary American poetry, an ambition involving experiments on a much subtler and more resonant level than those experiments by the Language poets which lead in an opposite, and to me less promising, direction. This ambition is to make the “really now” of the lyric voice also a “really now” for the personal energies of the poet. Thus we find a very different sense of conversation from William Carlos Williams's emphasis on a spoken American diction, from the cult of breath urgencies in Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, from Allen Ginsberg's irrepressible theatricality, and from the tin intimacies in Richard Hugo's letters. None of these suffice to make the lyric activity an exemplary anchoring for full personal presence. That requires a more urgent and more capacious intimacy blended with a sense of dynamic intelligence sustaining a fluid intensity that needs only a minimum degree of melodrama or claims on a deep, tormented psychological inwardness—for example in the direct speech of Adrienne Rich's recent work, or Tess Gallagher's narratives, or Ashbery's fluid conversation, or, quintessentially the way Robert Hass's Human Wishes handles divorce almost entirely by tonal control of specific descriptions.

    In my view, Hass sets the ideal of lyric character which Williams tries to realize in a more elemental stylistic way, so that the principle of voice is less dependent on charm and more aware of its underlying principles for expressing personal singularity. Think of Hass's reading style and imagine being a traditional poet who must follow him. The traditional poet would find himself or herself seeming at best a master of craft making isolated artifacts that are offered for judgment and consumption. Hass, on the other hand, makes his poems seem actual speech within a life, so that the reading becomes testimony to the forms of personal activity, in reflection and in public relations, that poetry can carry. And then we realize that for the past thirty years our poetry has been trying to find its way out of the dominance of the artifact codified by the poetry and the criticism of what we might call the New Critical years. It seems our task then is to carry this revolution as far as it can go by testing the degree to which art can be made continuous with life, not as a reductive realism but as a means of elaborating personal desires and of demonstrating the forms of communication and community that speech can establish. Hass does this by voice, Ashbery by intricate mobile intelligence, Rich by an aura of simple directness. Williams, I shall argue, wants his line to become the philosophical emblem for those aspects of agency necessary for and satisfied within this project.

  3. For an explicit rendering of this kind of suspicion, see “Vehicle: Violence” (Williams 70).

  4. For very similar attitudes toward elegy's relation to the grammatical resources of the language, see Ann Lauterbach's “Vernal Elegy” 62. I develop that sense of language in my “Jorie Graham and Ann Lauterbach: Towards a Contemporary Poetics of Eloquence.”

Works Cited

Altieri, Charles. “Ashbery as Love Poet.” Verse 8 (1991): 8–15.

———. Canons and Consequences: Reflections on the Ethical Force of Imaginative Ideals. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1990.

———. “Jorie Graham and Ann Lauterbach: Towards a Contemporary Poetics of Eloquence.” Cream City Review 12 (1988): 45–72.

Ashbery, John. Selected Poems. New York: Viking, 1985.

Bernstein, Charles. “Optimism and Critical Excess (Process).” Critical Inquiry 16 (1990): 830–56.

Borch-Jacobsen, Mikkel. Lacan: The Absolute Master. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991.

Lauterbach, Ann. Before Recollection. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. New York: Vintage, 1966.

———. On the Genealogy of Morals. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Perloff, Marjorie. Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1990.

Smith, Paul. Discerning the Subject. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987.

Staten, Henry. Nietzsche's Voice. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

Williams, C. K. Flesh and Blood. New York: Farrar, 1987.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Ludwig Wittgenstein Notebooks, 1914–16. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. New York: Harper, 1961.

———. Tractatus Logicus-Philosophicus. Trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuiness. London: Routledge, 1961.

Edward Hirsch (review date 17–24 August 1992)

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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 is “a dream dreamed in the presence of reason.”

Williams has always been a poet of psychological extremes, the sorrows of a diligent, self-reflexive consciousness his initiating subject. In his first two books, Lies (1969) and I Am the Bitter Name (1971), however, he was less interested in exploring linkages and associations, the mind's obsessive thirst for connection, than in tracking what he has called “varieties of disjunctive consciousness.” His early work, influenced by Artaud and Vallejo, intentionally subverted logical connectives and struggled to enact the movement of the mind as it swoops, hovers, and starts in at least three different directions at once.

Unsparingly honest and violently self-divided (“I am going to rip myself down the middle into two pieces,” he wrote in “Halves”), his poems were also motivated by a furious political consciousness, almost breaking apart with frustration and rage over the outright lies of the social and political world. Some rail against a perversely absent God (“A Day for Anne Frank,” “The Next to the Last Poem about God”); others storm against government (“A Poem for the Governments,” “Another Dollar”). The furies peak in “In the Heart of the Beast,” a long unpunctuated poem that responded to May 1970 (Cambodia, Kent State, Jackson State) at the level of a howl. These single-minded assaults shouldn't be dismissed; they were biographically and historically necessary. Still, in retrospect Williams's poetry seems hampered by the protest mode, the uncapitalized directness (“this is fresh meat right mr. nixon?”) of the late’60s.

Throughout his new book, Williams uses with great effectiveness the flexible, rangy, and capacious long line that he first discovered in With Ignorance (1977), refined in Tar (1983), and adapted to a group of eight-line poems in Flesh and Blood (1987). If emotion, for the lyric poet, is necessarily predicated on technique, then the decisive moment in Williams's development was when he began to enlarge and to extend his lineation even further than Whitman's free verse line, to see how far he could push and shape that line before it faltered or became prose. By using the line as the largest possible rhythmic unit, he forced himself to put things into his poems rather than to leave them out, to break the abbreviated rhetorical code—the lyric shorthand for emotion—that seems to characterize so much of the poetry of any period. As if heeding Frost's directive to dramatize, Williams also became an insistent storyteller, burying his social message deeper in the substance and the political unconscious of his poems.

The fourteen poems in With Ignorance have a powerful narrative propulsion and velocity. They are raw, colloquial, out-sized. Here was a starkly confessional, democratic, ambitious lyric poet who had crossed William Carlos Williams and Robert Lowell with Dostoevsky, whose poems had a streetwise urban intelligence—

If you put in enough hours in bars, sooner or later you get to hear every imaginable kind of bullshit.


a canny psychological sense of other people—

I think most people are relieved the first time they actually know someone who goes crazy.

(“The Cave”)

and an outlandish, almost biblical sense of outrage—

It stinks. It stinks and it stinks and it stinks and it stinks.

(“Hog Heaven”)

One is keyed to the underlying existential quest and paradoxical nature of Williams's enterprise by the quotation from Kierkegaard that gives the book its title: “With ignorance begins a knowledge the first characteristic of which is ignorance.” There is a tremendous amount of social information in Williams's work, but it is animated and subsumed by the hungers of consciousness repeatedly circling back and striving to know itself.

In Tar, Williams refined his storytelling gift and perfected the long line he had invented in With Ignorance, transforming it into a more sinuous and symmetrical unit, an instrument for speeding up or slowing down narrative, for modulating, correcting, and intensifying thought. His music can be as supple as a needle pulling thread or as pounding as a hammer coming down on metal. Copiousness of detail, a commanding narrative scope and energy, and an unremitting psychological intensity characterize such poems as “From My Window,” “My Mother's Lips,” “On Learning of a Friend's Illness,” and “Combat.” These poems not only tell dramatic stories—seeing two Vietnam vets, one in a wheelchair, careening haphazardly down the street; remembering his mother mouthing his words even as he spoke them—but they also think critically about those stories, doggedly pursuing human motivation, implicating and convicting the self as both actor and narrator, transfiguring the anecdotal into the mythical and archetypal. Perhaps most telling for William's new work is the concluding twenty-five-part poem, “One of the Muses.” This highly abstract, non-narrative poem evokes and traces his tormenting struggle to conceptualize and to bring into language a presence who at one time visited him, an evasive, nameless, bodiless spirit, possibly an inner construction, an almost palpable figure, a Platonic muse, a dream of mind.

The 130 poems of Flesh and Blood have the feeling of a contemporary sonnet sequence. Like Berryman's Dream Songs or Lowell's Notebooks, Williams's long-lined short poems are shapely and yet open-ended and self-generative, loosely improvisational though with an underlying formal necessity. Many present single extended moments intently observed: a girl with an artificial hand stepping onto the subway, a bum scribbling in a battered notebook in the public library. Others are miniature short stories, sudden fictions. Still others take meditative stabs at ideas of “nostalgia” or “the past” or “failure.” All of these poems present people in situations in which they are vulnerable, exposed, on the edge.

The poems in Flesh and Blood have a thick naturalistic surface and a fast narrative current. But a philosopher lurks behind the sociologist. The poems in the second section, for example, are structured as urban parables. They take a general idea—“reading” or “love” or “the good mother”—and yoke it to a specific story: a man fixing his car in bitter cold stops to read a newspaper or a bored couple “perversely” persist in kissing each other. In these poems, the general is exemplified by the particular and the individual vignette aspires to the exemplum. In the eighteen-part elegy that concludes the book, Williams not only eulogizes his friend Paul Zweig but also charts the contours of consciousness as it tries to hold onto a friend even as it must let him go.

A Dream of Mind is Williams's most varied and challenging work so far. It, too, is about “thinking thought,” thought it is also about the ways in which thought—or, more precisely, dream—thinks us, how a complex of unconscious desires, fantasies, and projections stream through and motivate our actions. One recurrent subject of this five-part book is how the psyche constitutes and reconstitutes itself—beset by a steady stream of impressions and mental images, obsessed by the wounds and fissures of memory, the tormenting routes of self-consciousness, the continual gap and flow we experience between our conceptions of ourselves and what we actually see and experience in the world. An old man badgers his family to help him commit suicide, but then asks not to be told when (“When”); the poet recalls the traumatic project of remaking himself as a writer during his 20s (“She, Though”); an aged Paris broods upon the dying Helen of Troy (“Helen”): the poems in this volume remind us how hard it is to remain one person, how painful it is to see ourselves and others clearly, how radically unstable and uncertain is our knowing.

Williams's poems are nothing if not extreme. Relentless, urban, invasive—like city life itself, they are not for the faint-hearted. One of his characteristic strategies is to dramatize the turbulence of the mind at work under terrific duress; that is, in the presence of others at moments of their greatest social weakness and vulnerability, moments when the fabric of daily life is torn open and someone is profoundly exposed. The speaker is an inadvertent voyeur—self-conscious, self-critical—who sees something suppressed or forbidden, often something offensive. He discovers another person simultaneously observing what he observes, ascertaining what he is avoiding or avoiding what he is compelled to acknowledge, and thereby sees his own reactions in an obverse mirror. He catches himself looking, looking away, knowing. Many of the poems are structured precisely around this process of perception, resistance and denial, and recognition.

The poem “Harm,” for example, recounts the memory of a local homeless person—familiar, usually inoffensive—who recently “stepped abruptly out between parked cars, / undid his pants, and, not even bothering to squat, sputtered out a noxious, almost liquid stream.” It is not only that the speaker must stare at the man's bony shanks, stained buttocks, and scarlet, diseased testicles, but also

that a slender adolescent girl from down the block happened by right then, and looked,
and looked away, and looked at me, and looked away again, and made me want to say to her,
because I imagined what she must have felt, 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?

The burden of this poem is the knowledge of the soiled and sordid, the comprehension that cannot be evaded, rationalized, or denied.

One hears in these poems the inner voice of the mind not only lacerating itself but also coming up against the blunt reality of other people. Thus, in the emblematic encounter “Child Psychology,” the repressed returns in the form of a worker who had been mucking about in the sewer—“those viscous, unforgiving depths”—and fished out some keys that the speaker very much wanted to forget losing. The agent of his self-knowledge has arrived, his punishment postponed but now swift and inexorable. In such ways other people often become the external correlative for a demonic internal force, embodying the shunned or refused self. “No wonder my fascination turned to those as lost as me, the drugged, the drunk, the mad,” the poet writes in “The Loneliness”: “Like ancient wounds they were, punctured with their solitude and sorrow, suppurating, stinking: / I'd recoil from what the soul could come to, but I knew within my soul that they were me.”

A Dream of Mind is dominated by two complementary long poems. The fourteen-part sequence “Some of the Forms of Jealousy” both dramatizes and investigates the forms of consciousness obsessed by sexual betrayal. In a series of vignettes and meditations the poet painstakingly recreates the degrading miseries of jealousy, the cells of doubt that expand into full-fledged torments, the unrelenting anxiety that inevitably involves and implicates others, the “terrific agitation” and “scalding focus,” the “desperate single-mindedness” and “odious dependency” that takes over the jealous mind. “This is so exhausting: when will it relent?” the speaker asks in “The Silence,” and immediately answers his own question: “It seems never, not as long as consciousness exists.” Obsessive jealousy is consciousness run amok, the mind humiliating and annihilating itself, not knowing that “what we're living isn't ever what we think we are.”

The sequence “A Dream of Mind” also takes up the subject of “the mind in its endless war with itself,” but here it becomes an idea of poetic method, a struggle to illuminate the themes of being by clarifying various tremulous epistemological states, to solidify the fluidity of a self that at times seems no more than a field of interchanges. There is a nearly endless regress as the dreamer tries to know himself (“Always in the dream I seemed conscious of myself having the dream even as I dreamed it”), and the poet vigilantly tries to transcribe and shape the unconscious wave passing through him (“It almost seems that this is what dream is about, to think what's happening as it's happening”). “A Dream of Mind” is Williams at his most complex, abstract, and discursive, the poet “deciphering and encoding,” thinking through and being thought.

“Poetry confronts in the most clear-eyed way just those emotions which consciousness wishes to slide by,” Williams wrote in his essay “Poetry and Consciousness,” and in A Dream of Mind he has voraciously struggled to clarify that sliding, to unmask what is most painful and hidden in our psyches, and to embody that unmasking in the processes of lyric.

Robert Michaels (review date December 1992)

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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 down the block happened by right then, and looked,
and looked away, and looked at me, and looked away again, and made me want to say to her,
because I imagined what she must have felt, 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?

In “Child Psychology,” Williams speaks of latency and libido, of oedipal adventures and the return of the repressed, when

we were going somewhere and without telling him I took my father's keys and went outside to wait.
House, car, office keys: how proud I was to be the keeper of that weighty, consequential mass.
I stood there, tossing it from hand to hand, then, like my father, high into the air.
And then I missed, and saw it fall, onto the narrow grating of a storm sewer, and then in.

In “The Cautionary” (my favorite poem in the volume), which was first published in The Times Literary Supplement, Williams writes about a man and his attractive, somewhat younger wife:

he decides that it's not he himself, as himself, his wife desires, but that she simply desires.
He comes to think he's incidental to this desire, which is general, unspecific, without object,
almost, in its intensity and heat, without a subject: she herself seems secondary to it,
as though the real project of her throaty, heaving passion was to melt her mindlessly away.

In “Helen,” Paris says of the dying Helen,

The next night her cough was worse, with a harsher texture, the spasms came more rapidly,
and they'd end with a deep, complicated emptying, like the whining flattening of a bagpipe.
The whole event seemed to need more labor: each cough sounded more futile than the last,
as though the effort she'd made and the time lost making it had added to the burden of illness.

Williams is introspective and self-reflective. In “She, Though,” narrated by a writer, he speaks of the dedication of an artist:

That dedication, or obsession, or semblance of obsession, counted for much in those days.
For most of us it was all we had, struggling through our perplexed, interminable apprenticeships.
We were trying to create identities as makers and as thinkers, and that entailed so much.

When he writes about people or events, this self-awareness leads to a double consciousness of what was and of what the poet saw and felt and thought about what was. We have access to a vivid representation of the world and at the same time share a privileged participation in his personal view of it. This self-awareness works less well when it is directed only inward. A third of this book is occupied by the cycle of 16 poems providing the title for the volume. The cycle starts with “The Method”:

A dream of method first, in which mind is malleable, its products as revisable as sentences,
in which I'll be able to extract and then illuminate the themes of being as I never have.
I'm intrigued—how not be?—but I soon realize that though so much flexibility is tempting—
whole zones of consciousness wouldn't only be reflected or referred to, but embodied, as themselves.

Later, in “Vocations,” he explains,

they can be considered in a way that implies consequence, what I come to call the dream's “meaning.”
Although I can't quite specify how this ostensible meaning differs from the sum of its states,
it holds an allure, solutions are implied, so I keep winding the dream's filaments onto its core.
The problem is that trying to make the recalcitrant segments of the dream cohere is distracting.

In “The Gap,” he adds,

So often and with such cruel fascination I have dreamed the implacable void that contains dream.
The space there, the silence, the scrawl of trajectories tracked, traced, and let go.

He also says, in “The Fear,”

In my dream of unspecific anxiety, nothing is what it should be, nothing acts as it should;
everything shifts, shudders, won't hold still long enough for me to name or constrain it.
The fear comes with no premonition, no flicker in the daily surges and currents of dream.

I read these impatiently, eager to get back to narratives with plots and characters. Williams’ gift of language is immense and apparent, but without the content of real people and concrete events, his view of mind and mental life failed to hold me.

Of course, poetry is the music of language as much as the meaning, and Williams is a virtuoso of words. His style is quite distinctive; his lines are said to be the longest of any poet writing today. This permits, or perhaps demands, that he include all of the possibilities inherent in each thought, each moment. He turns to runs of words in which the same consonant is used repeatedly when he wants to carry us with him through an image and then shifts to short, almost clipped syllables when he wants us to pause and consider. For example, in my favorite, “The Cautionary,” we have “a man who's married,” who broods “fretfully on her faithfulness,” and observes with a “degree of detachment” until the flow is disrupted as “it dawns on him in a shocking and oddly exciting insight.”

The impact of this is subliminal: one must study closely to discern how Williams achieves his effects, but the impact is nonetheless powerful. Others who attempt to use language to communicate ideas with emotional impact might well consider their use of language as carefully.

Williams deserves a wide audience. He is an important poet and a first-rate psychologist as well.

David Herd (review date 4 December 1992)

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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 departing from the syntax of ordinary speech, the poetry moves at the pace of the thought, through a process of intelligent questioning towards heightened understanding. What this displays is a faith in the power of an alert, often highly metaphorical language to arbitrate and persuade.

This is not a sentimental, but an earnest faith that flows from the poet's belief in “that healing accord” which “must precede or succeed dream.” Williams has too often been passed over by American academic criticism. A Dream of Mind deserves to be read.

John Saunders (review date Winter 1993)

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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 series moves towards ‘Light,’ title of the final poem, though nightmare always lurks in the darkness at the edge of the dream, the nightmare of ‘having so little power, even over my own consciousness,’ but drawing on mental powers beyond analysis he can recapture an innocence stronger than despair: ‘I imagine myself in that healing accord I still somehow believe must precede or succeed dream.’

There may be a certain amount of camouflaged theology here, in contrast with Ashbery's resolutely secular drift. The dream can be a kind of ethical project, involving the imagination and the heart: ‘Heart’ he wonders in ‘Shells,’ ‘ever unworthy of you, lost in you, will I ever truly dream you, or dream beyond you?’ It is a question which preoccupies him through the book, especially in the second section ‘Some of the Forms of Jealousy,’ where we meet precise notation and an awareness of other people and situations, though ‘this unsavoury, unsilent solitude of self’ remains locked in unending soliloquy, sometimes comic in tone, like the anguished articulate self-tormentors of Bellow or Heller, sometimes witty and detached. In ‘Signs,’ dinner with a friend whose wife he comes to feel must have a lover, signalled by ‘complex inward blushes of accomplishment, achievement, pride’ though perhaps unsuspected by her husband leads into an extended, Titanic metaphor as the social forms are maintained whatever the stresses and strains below the surface: ‘I ply my boilers too; my workers hum: light the deck lamps, let the string quartet play.’ In ‘The Cautionary’ the husband's mad logic leaves Othello standing as his suspicious scrutiny colludes in its own sadly self-fulfilling prophesy: ‘Yes. No. Yes. He knows he should stop all this: but how can he without going to the end?’ In the last of them, ‘Soliloquies’ it seems this world of overwhelming and unspoken questions might be grounded in ‘a more radical uncertainty.’ If love ‘with its promise of certainties the only answer to these doubts’ cannot hold its own against the melancholy long with-drawing roar Arnold heard on Dover Beach, is God too ‘potentially beloved other … who already has sufficient knowledge of our fate to heal us, but may well decide not to do so’?

If Williams's habitual long line occasionally sags, the language a little ordinary, in the title sequence sometimes smacking of rejected passages from Four Quartets, he is more often rigorous and alert, with the American knack of modulating from the informal and prosaic to a commanding rhetoric, as in ‘The Insult’ which seems to link both Stevens and Frost. He can tell a good story too, whether the Freudian anecdote of ‘Child Psychology,’ or ‘Allies: According to Herodotus,’ where the affronted Xerxes en route for Greece chops his host's son in two and marches his army between the halves. I'm less sure about ‘She, Though,’ the extended narrative of love among the artists maybe with autobiographical elements which makes up the third section, a kind of ‘groping dialectic’ about art and death. The protagonist, perhaps a Stephen Dedalus to the mature Williams's Joyce, comes to understand that ‘what art needed at the end / was an acceptance of what's muddled and confused in us’ rather than ‘the mastery of expression’ supposedly attained by his antagonist, the girl he once rejected. There's more muddle than I can accept and for more than a hundred years the novelists have been refining these nuances with greater lucidity. In the final piece, ‘Helen’ he does regain the unflinching clarity of shorter poems like ‘Harm’ and ‘Scar’ in contemplating the last illness of his (it reads as autobiography though distanced by the third person) wife. The subject is really not unlike Poe's ‘Ligeia’ without the note of hysteria, the death of a beautiful woman providing a near-mystical climax:

‘she had entered death, he was with her in it.
Death was theirs, she'd become herself again; her final,
searing loveliness had been revealed.’

Lawrence Norfolk (review date 12 February 1993)

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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, fading out rather than concluding, as though the poetic muscle which has rendered these scenes atrophies when it comes to rendering them meaningful. Sometimes there is no attempt made at all. In “Allies: According to Herodotus” the reader is simply left to grapple with the image of Xerxes’ army marching off to war between the severed halves of a body. What to do?

Williams's personae lay themselves open to such assaults, but somehow avoid permanent damage. At the core of these poems is a stubbornness or refusal to turn away, which proves itself a match (and no more) for the batterings meted out by reality. Between the poet and his material, there is an abrasive stand-off.

Two longer, narrative poems locate this difficult reality with more insistence among other people. “She, Though” unpicks and weighs the incidents of a bizarrely elaborate revenge taken on the poet (Williams appears in propria persona) by a young woman whose advances he has refused. Her attack, by an oblique thrust, is on Williams's role as an artist: “No, it wasn't me she hated and wanted vengeance from, it was art.” At some level either not fully grasped by the poem or allowed to run unchecked, this is about the larger antagonism between humanity and art. “She—how specify her now?” Williams asks dismissively of his, and his art's, erstwhile tormentor. But the poet and his art, and their enemy, remain tangled in each other. Their crossfire is correspondingly confusing. Is the girl someone whom Williams, all too human, simply doesn't like, or an element too virulent for the poem to include, or is she proof of her own contention that poetry is inhumane, somehow alien to life as it is lived?

“Helen,” a husband's account of his wife's decline and death, examines these relations quite differently. Poetry is ostensibly the hero of the piece, recouping and compensating for the impending loss. But by resisting its own central fact—the wife's death—the poem inevitably suffers periodic collapses, “Then he couldn't hold it, couldn't keep it, it was all illusion, a confection of his sorrow.” The poet darts about, salvaging, recording, but he can never be quite quick enough for the sudden thrusts and overwhelmings of his experience. This could easily turn into a familiar and arid argument about the ultimate inadequacy of poetry, but Williams refuses to blame his tools. Instead he does something quite startling.

Two further groups of poems make up the collection. “Some of the Forms of Jealousy” plants the green-eyed monster in a succession of personae, then sits back to watch the results. Jealous minds, Williams demonstrates, play all kinds of obsessive tricks on themselves. There is social comedy too, but the mind's internal movements are the real focus. Jealousy itself functions as a kind of catalyst. Half-thought, half-emotion, lacking any real object, jealousy is a mental goad to excite the minds of his personae and direct them in upon themselves. He concludes, “Might jealousy finally suggest that what we're living isn't ever what we think we are?” Williams uses jealousy partly as a test case, partly as a mechanism to establish some broad parameters. “Living,” “thinking,” “being,” what are the relations, left so provocatively unresolved in the above quotation, between these three? The title-poem of “A Dream of Mind” sets itself no lesser task than describing them.

The dream is, and is of, consciousness. It has little or no content, this being both an account and an enactment of its operations, which are fleeting and evanescent; half-thoughts, wishes, fears, murmurs, intimations of others. There are few metaphors—what can consciousness itself be like?—and little imagery, although, when Williams is forced to it, it is Blakean in its intensity and strangeness; other presences in the dream are “beasts, captives of fear and hunger” and “angels, nearly on fire.” Most difficult of all, being both account and enactment, the poem's status is problematic, always somehow in the way of what Williams is attempting, something to be continually got rid of.

As a result, the poem's more overt rhetorical energies are necessarily suppressed. Its vocabulary is restricted, ambiguities very carefully controlled. Because Williams's whole method depends on his being at once within and without the dream, both observer and observed, grammar and syntax are placed under extraordinary strain.

The dream is of beings like me, assembled, surrounded, herded like creatures, driven, undone.
And beings like me, not more like me but like me, assemble and herd them, us; undo us.

Williams's trademark—the long line—is crucial to the enterprise, giving him time to follow a notion through its range of aspects, amplifying, redirecting, sometimes allowing it to run unchecked for a stanza, sometimes reversing it mid-line with a caesura which can fall like a guillotine, or intervene with the briefest of pauses. The technical control exerted over these lines in masterly.

It needs to be. “A Dream of Mind” does not gesture at consciousness as some taken-as-read precondition of poetry, it traces, refuses everything but, and in a sense is, the act itself. In terms of poetry, it is analogous to Heidegger's return to the ur-question of Being which was left unanswered in the prehistory of philosophy; a foundation that should have been built, but never was. Whence and how these abrasions of experience, these unresolved knots of memory? Why cannot poetry deal better with all this? In answer to such questions, Williams has taken an extraordinary, magisterial leap back.

The contention lying behind, and beyond the remit of, this poem, is that the most basic tool of poetry, its workbench perhaps, has been taken as mysterious, mystical even, when its understanding is in fact crucial. Put crudely, the reason there is so much wilfully obscure poetry is not that modern experience is overwhelming, but that the consciousness it meets has been wrongly characterized as unknowable and is thus ill-prepared. These are implications that Williams does not draw, but “A Dream of Mind” is none the less restorative. Part philosophical essay, part dramatization, part confession, it is also an intensely human poem. Its centre and edges are pervaded alike by the dreamer who is both pure observer and complicit creator, fascinated, appalled, attracted, repulsed, beholding and beheld by “this and streaming through me, its turbulent stillness, its murmur, inexorable, beguiling.”

Bernard F. Dick (review date Spring 1993)

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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 / rancor continue”). Separation of article and noun jolts the reader into the poet's emotional state.

The title derives from a sequence of sixteen poems, the fourth section of the collection, that explore the nature of dream as both personal and cosmic. One might even speak of the epistemology of dream, since Williams is questioning the knowledge derived from dream (not in the sense of the nonwaking state but closer to what Coleridge would have called the secondary imagination). At times reminiscent of the Four Quartets, these are the only poems in the collection that can be called intermittently successful. Williams's talent lies in the confessional and the observational; when he becomes speculative, his wonderful clarity clouds over, sometimes resulting in opacity. Still, A Dream of Mind is a major work by a major poet, whose insights the reader feels privileged to have shared.

Judith Kitchen (review date Fall 1993)

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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 understand how those moves go together to make a completed figure. I have felt the shape of the line.

The faceless figure turns out to have a name—Gary Beacom of Canada. He returns in white pants, turquoise shirt, yellow tie. His face is expressive; the skating is seamless once more. But I'm haunted by the body that is no longer before me, the skeletal shape that revealed the poem. It's Beacom, not Petrenko, who has taken me to the secret of Petrenko's most amazing leap: the presence of a vision. Petrenko knows what he's reaching for; his face relaxes even before he lands, flashes a quick smile. This is choreography: each line by itself displays amazing skill, yet each is essential to the construction of a whole. The poem has been set in motion.

Too much contemporary poetry is pyrotechnics, manner, attitude. It displays skill—even, in bursts, imagination—yet is lacking in any sense of a whole, a sustaining purpose which gives meaning to the skill displayed. This is not a simple matter. I am convinced that it is possible to learn to write a poem in the same way it is possible to learn to skate, by practicing the individual moves over and over. I am also convinced that the result will look like, even act like, a poem. But it will not be a poem until it is impelled by something beyond the desire to have written a poem. I'd name it yearning except that a friend's anecdote comes so quickly to mind: A graduate student said a poem had moved him. “Moved?” said the professor. “That word has no place in our discussion.” But why not refute the professors who refuse to begin the discussion with emotion? Why not look for poems that embody the need to fly?

Looking over the many books sent to me to consider for this review, I see that they fall essentially into two categories: those where the line is predominant (that is, the line seems to drive the poem and creates the tone or cadence, even the meaning) and those where the overall vision seems to determine the line and the way it will function in the poem. Of course the reader cannot know exactly how a poem came into being, but this latter category consists of poems which could be described as those whose shape was felt before the act of articulation began. Some poems, explicitly or implicitly, raise the question of line versus vision; it becomes part of the drama in reading. It's similar to the way a spectator at an ice show can be involved in moment-to-moment risks the performer takes—will she make it? will he fall?—all the while building toward the hoped-for recognition of a perfectly completed shape. We watch poets bend and extend their lines in interesting ways and we may go with them for the moment, even admire the daring or subtlety, but in the end we need to see that the flashes of brilliance have been in the service of something more complex.

At any rate, that's the sort of concern I bring with me as a reader to six new books of poetry. The line is extremely personal to the poet. It orchestrates individual voice, and poets today are feeling quite free to experiment with how best to capture this personal element. I'm going to pay attention not only to the characteristic line of each poet, but to what that line does, how it serves the articulation of the larger vision.

C. K. Williams has developed a deliberately elongated line (almost every one is over twenty syllables) that is instantly recognizable to readers of contemporary poetry. A Dream of Mind, his latest collection, uses that line to serve its title. Williams’ long lines not only launch the narrative, they also allow enough room for a kind of internal equivocation. They flow more easily when read quietly to oneself than when read aloud. The rhythms are the rhythms of thought—actually, of reason—so that the reader is constantly aware of the mind at work, twisting back on itself in order to fix and define what is otherwise ambiguous. In this way, Williams’ lines allow him to become so obsessive about getting it right that the poems often unfold as an unending scrutiny of nuance. For example, the fourteen poems of the second section, entitled “Some of the Forms of Jealousy,” let the reader know from the beginning what they are all “about.” The meaning, therefore, resides in the process, as can be seen by the opening lines of “Signs”:

My friend's wife has a lover; I come to this conclusion—not suspicion, mind, conclusion,
not a doubt about it, not a hesitation, although how I get there might be hard to track;
a blink a little out of phase, say, with its sentence, perhaps a word or two too few;
a certain tenderness of atmosphere, of aura, almost like a pregnancy, with less glow, perhaps,
but similar complex inward blushes of accomplishment, achievement, pride—during dinner,
as she passes me a dish of something, as I fork a morsel of it off, as our glances touch.

By the time we reach the end, we've been caught up in the psychology of the poem's persona, worrying away at the minor details that make up the major portion of our lives. And the fun in the reading is to use our own knowledge of human nature, enough to follow the speaker's logic through to its conclusion and simultaneously reserve judgment so that the speaker might be—definitely could be—wrong about everything. “Jealousy” is the ostensible subject, but the intricacies of the mind—its ability to deliberate to the point of utter self-consciousness—are what fascinate the reader, and probably the poet as well.

The expansive lines give sustenance to “She, Though,” the eleven-page poem that comprises the middle section, by establishing a spoken voice—that of someone telling an anecdote, someone maddeningly literal and, at the same time, fascinating in his fanatic precision. The poem opens with the peculiar vagaries of speech, all its qualifications and ambiguities: “Her friend's lover was dying, or not ‘friend,’ they weren't that yet, if they ever really were; …” The reader is able to maintain an interest in the primary “story,” but the real interest is in how the speaker reacts to the “she” of the title. In analyzing a particular woman's response to her roommate's tragedy as well as that woman's relationship to her art, he finds himself enmeshed in his own crisis of identity. This poem is indicative of Williams’ characteristic achievement. He is able to render something like the full complexity of consciousness—typically that of an observer catching himself in the act of observation.

If the first half of the book calls attention to the mind at work, the sixteen discrete poems of the title section shift the emphasis slightly from the “mind” to the “dream,” with varying connotations, including the imaginary, the insubstantial, the illusory, the pensive, and the visionary. Williams uses the mind and its convoluted forays into logic to decipher the meaning of dream, what he terms “ideas of dreams.” But the treacherous mind often ends the speculation with a question mark. In dream, where the mind can make “something out of nothing,” the shadowy figures or the reincarnated dead are understood only in abstractions. More often than not, those abstractions lead to even more abstruse questions, as in “Light”:

And if this isn't the case, wouldn't the alternative be as bad; that each element of the dream
would contain its own entailment so that what came next would just do so for no special reason?

“Reason” is at the heart of A Dream of Mind, and yet dream resists reason. It leads, so often, to truly unanswerable questions.

The culminating concern of so many of the poems in the title sequence is that of death, of its place in the human order, of what we are to make of it. “Helen,” the long final poem that comprises the fifth section, is the account of one man's experience of his wife's final days. As an observer, he is able to will an attitude toward death—that he could keep “all the person she had been” inside himself so she would go on living. But the dream cannot hold. Death is recognized for what it is—a singular event—and he must give her over to it, knowing he couldn't retain the illusion. The poem pushes on from this point, though, in the way of human willfulness, to a closure where the speaker feels that he has entered death with her, has bridged the gap of separation. Unfortunately, the last two stanzas ring false. Grief is not identical to death. This reader, at least, is left stymied by something that does not mesh with her experience.

The long lines that allow Williams to explore this particular kind of consciousness also seem to imprison him in their very flexibility. He almost acknowledges this in “The Method” when he states, “I dream a dream of method, comprehending little of the real forces or necessities of dream, / and find myself entangled in the dream, entrapped, already caught in what the dream contrived, / in what it made, of my ambitions, or of what it itself aspired to. …” Substitute the word “line” for all but the first “dream” and you discover his problem: the line seems to have a life of its own; it dictates tone; it limits the eventual conclusion. In fact, most of Williams’ lines end with a period, a semicolon or, at the very least, a comma, thus completing their function before he goes on. Coupled with the abstract nature of the argument itself, Williams’ line demarcates what the reader can easily hold intact in the head. One reads to the end of the line, comprehends the fullness of thought, then readies oneself for the next.

Williams’ strength is his limitation: his means are so self-conscious that they inevitably become a stance rather than an exploration. Because these lines represent thought chiefly as a verbal process, there are few images on which readers can focus. We are expected to enter the abstract discourse of the poem rather than bring our own worlds with us. The effect is both stimulating and frustrating. There is serious pleasure in matching one's mind to that of the writer, in seeing things through his eyes—or rather, voice. This is especially true for the humorous poems such as “The Vessel” and “Child Psychology.” The frustration comes when there is simply too much of what might be a good thing, as though the lines were stamped out by machine, one after the other, all of a kind. In the book as a whole, their aggregate weight seems to drain energy from the individual pieces. It's a bit like eating a very large Caesar salad. At first the palate is pleased by the sharp sensation, the blend of distinctive tastes. But all too soon the flavor is familiar and there's still so much lettuce on the plate.

Williams’ poems are at their best when read individually in The New Yorker. There, they have wit and energy. Their “vision” is discernable and their line seems more a mark of virtuosity rather than a mere compulsory figure.

Ben Howard (review date December 1993)

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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 suspicion, mind, conclusion,
not a doubt about it, not a hesitation, although how I get there might be hard to track;
a blink a little out of phase, say, with its sentence, perhaps a word or two too few;
a certain tenderness of atmosphere, of aura, almost like a pregnancy, with less glow, perhaps,
but similar complex inward blushes of accomplishment, achievement, pride—during dinner,
as she passes me a dish of something, as I fork a morsel of it off, as our glances touch.


As the poem progresses, the narrator's intuition deepens (“Something in the wifely glance tells me now she knows I know”), and his discomfort grows. Focusing intently on his food, he defends his innocence and privacy against the wife's unwelcome confession:

The wife smiles yet again, I smile, too, but what I'm saying is if what she means is so,
I have no wish to know; more, I never did know; more, if by any chance I might have known,
I've forgotten, absolutely, yes: if it ever did come into my mind it's slipped my mind.
In truth, I don't remember anything; I eat, I drink, I smile; I hardly even know I'm there.

Here, as in many of Williams's poems, intuition and awareness play the dominant roles, ferreting out the truth and tracking the narrator's emotional response. Analysis is secondary, and moral judgment is, at most, implied.

At their strongest, Williams's shorter poems work much in the manner of “Signs,” setting up a tense situation and limning its dynamics. Williams's subjects include a dying man begging for euthanasia, a guilt-ridden son, a man on the verge of bankruptcy, and an adolescent girl exposed to a homeless man's indecency. An entire section of his book, entitled “Some of the Forms of Jealousy,” examines the travails of lovers and spouses, finding more fear than affection, more treachery than fulfillment. In “The Cautionary,” a husband's suspicions drive his wife toward betrayal; in “The Call,” an abandoned lover salves his wounds by “dutifully forgiving everyone” and wondering “what kind of realignment could possibly redeem so much despair?” In “The Image,” an unfaithful wife endures her husband's brutal reprisal:

It must have almost starved in him, she thinks, all those years spent scenting out false stimuli,
all that passive vigilance, secreting bitter enzymes of suspicion, ingesting its own flesh;
he must have eaten at himself, devouring his own soul until his chance had finally come.
But now it had and he had driven fangs in her and nothing could contain his terrible tenacity.
She let the vision take her further; they had perished, both of them, there they lay, decomposing,
one of them drained white, the other bloated, gorged, stale blood oozing through its carapace.
Only as a stupid little joke, she thought, would anybody watching dare wonder which was which.

Not all of Williams's explorations are so graphic as “The Image”—or so compelling. A group of poems entitled “A Dream of Mind” describes its own enterprise as a “frenzied combing of the countries of mind / where I always believed I'd find safety and solace but where now are confusion and fear / and a turmoil so total that all I have known or might know drags me with it towards chaos.” In their encounters with fear in general and the dread of death in particular, these poems carry no little power, but too often they dilute their own urgencies with obsessive questioning:

What do I mean by nightmare itself, though? Wouldn't that imply a mind here besides mine?
But how else explain all the care, first to involve me, then to frighten me out of my wits?
Mustn't something with other agendas be shaping the dream; don't all the enticements and traps
suggest an intention more baleful than any I'd have for visiting such mayhem on myself?

Rather than evoke the watchful witness, these lines bring to mind the compulsive worrier. Intelligent though they are, the poet's rhetorical questions distance both narrator and reader from the horrors of the “nightmare,” which is itself only vaguely described.

Williams has included two long narrative poems, one of them recounting a beautiful woman's decline and death, as witnessed by her husband, and the other examining the destructive element in art, its “evasions” and “grievous cosmic flinchings from reality.” Williams's narrative skills are considerable, and his speculations gain immediacy from their embodiment in concrete narrative detail. But on balance it is Williams's shorter poems, employing dramatic rather than narrative devices, that sustain this uneven collection. In these poems (of which “Signs,” “Scar,” and “Chapter Eleven” are the most remarkable examples) the poet's long lines explore the tensions of the moment, and his complex syntax, replete with antitheses and reversals, unfolds the contradictions of his heart and mind.

Ross Feld (review date 1995)

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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? That is the question which feeds the reader's consuming interest in the events of a novel.”

Churning inside their polishing mechanisms, forms of art do seem to develop real attractions for each other—or for each other's myth. These attractions aren't questioned much, seeming to matter only as much as art itself matters at any given moment. You can take it merely as a form of cross-platform flattery, reciprocal advertisement; or, on another, more blue-note level, as the disheartening privacy of art—that no one will know, therefore much care, if Cousin A sneaks into Cousin B's room at night.

Yet despite the fact that a true hermaphroditism is as rarely found in literature as it is in human biology, the daydream that this is otherwise keeps growing. Poetry that doesn't want to be read as poetry and fictional prose that would prefer not to be read as fiction—these never really received much self-conscious boost from switch-hitters like Pushkin or Poe, from Hugo or Hardy or Meredith. Andrei Biely's St. Petersburg or Virginia Woolf's The Waves sometimes are set out as markers, but whichever the progenitor, the recurrent temptation to render prose as poetry's biography, and poetry as prose's thing-in-itself, seems to be of recent vintage. It makes you wonder if it isn't as much a shift in the anthropology of literary form as one of technical refinement.

Four current striking examples easily come to hand. C. K. Williams’ poems are hallmarked by the room they take up on the page—one very long line followed by a very short one. A poetry reader subconsciously feels that he or she is getting good value here: a lot of plain nouns, not too crowded or pinched; Williams sprawling with his elbows out but also knowing when to tuck them back in, his poems rolling and stopping along this tracking scheme of expansion and contraction. Whitmanesque in that they frequently deal with life in the distressed city—deal, that is to say, in a distressed poet nakedly in a distressed place—these loquacious narrative poems look appropriate. Post-industrial dreck causes Williams first to watch, then deliver:

An old hill town in northern Pennsylvania, a missed connection for a bus, an hour to kill.
For all intents and purposes, the place was uninhabited; the mine closed years before—
anthracite too dear to dig, the companies went west to strip, the miners to the cities—
and now, although the four-lane truck route still went through—eighteen wheelers pounding past—
that was almost all: a shuttered Buick dealer, a grocery, not even a McDonald's

(from “Neglect”)

Williams’ long line heaps detail, the short one cauterizes by specificity. From behind a counter a drab woman serves coffee, a kid is scanning dirty man / man magazines at the news rack, and the dinginess and the smoke of the “violated, looted country, the fraying fringes / of the town / those gutted hills, hills by rote, hills by permission, great, naked wastes / of wrack and spill,” hardly leaves the poet unhappy to see his bus finally come, only a little guilty.

But what the long line increases isn't always discrete. Often there will be cumulative rephrasings:

It would feel less like desperation, being driven down, ground down, and much more like a reflex, almost whim,
as though the pestering forces of inertia that for so long had held you back had ebbed at last,
and you could slip through now, not to peace particularly, not even to escape, but to completion

(from “Suicide: Anne”)

Set above the off-center fulcrum of the short lines, these planks of rephrasing give the sensation of an avid, agonized, psychologically venturesome poet-character, someone a little like one of the petty-devil desperadoes in Dostoevsky's Demons. But the poem's basis continues to be parallelism, a kind of parquet. Williams’ earliest poems using the long line didn't have the rhythm quite set yet—

This is going to get a little nutty now, maybe because everything was a little nutty for me back then.
Not a little. I'd been doing some nice refining. No work, no woman, hardly any friends left.
The details don't matter. I was helpless, self-pitying, angry, inert, and right now
I was flying to Detroit to interview for a job I knew I wouldn't get. …

(from “Bob”)

—but they had already worked out a role for the short line. A touch of self-pity makes every other line somewhat bowl-shaped, depressed.

In the Colonial Luncheonette on Sixth Street they know everything there is to know, the shits.
Sam Terminidi will tell you how to gamble yourself at age sixty from accountant to bookie
and Sam Finkel will tell you more than anyone cares to hear how to parlay an ulcer into a pension …

(from “The Regulars”)

Not a lot separates this from being a Jimmy Breslin column in verse. Williams employs the second line—“the shits”—to set us straight on his apartness, as well as showing his skill with a lasso (“accountant to bookie” and “an ulcer into a pension”). As the luncheonette's regulars go on to dissect the inevitable failure of an immigrant-owned business that has opened across the street, tightening themselves into mean-spirited “angles,” they do so largely in terms of Williams’ paraphrase and swallowed counterargument:

                                                            Sam T can tell you the answer to anything in the world
in one word and Sam F prefaces all his I-told-you-so's with “you don't understand, it's complex.”
“It's simple,” Sam T says, “where around here is anyone going to get money for toys?” The end.
Never mind the neighborhood's changing so fast that the new houses at the end of the block
are selling for twice what the whole block would have five years ago, that's not the point.
Business shits, right? Besides, the family—what's that they're eating—are wrong, right?
Not totally wrong, what are they, Arabs or something? but still, wrong enough, that's sure.

Calling the two Sams by name extends to them a friendliness they don't offer the toystore owners. Still, the poem, too, seems slightly infected by bad faith. In a novel, these dumb opinions, spoken words, could be contextualized beyond immediate, shocking use; in a poem there's no time for that: They have to be called smartly to centerstage right away, where they will be contrasted or italicized. This functions as the poet's “angle,” if you will. The poet comes into the luncheonette often enough to name its denizens, and be known by them—the democratic sub-assumption—but unless this is brand-new behavior by the Sams (which of course it isn't), the poet somehow is too bound by habit or fug to stop going in there: the self-pity. The drum of Whitman's long line, and even Ginsberg's, keeps coming at you, but the relentlessness of Williams’ line keeps letting it all come at him. In a shorter-lined poem this kind of welcome afforded to humiliation would quickly seem arch, a bone in the throat. But the long, prosy-looking line buffers.

Williams has to be admired for his white knuckles, for how hard he hangs on. One engrossing sequence of poems addresses jealousy, for instance; and Williams’ iron grasp is shown most fully in a long sad memorial poem to his close friend Paul Zweig, as well as one on the theme of a wife's wasting death. In these, the previously sexy thrusts of the first long lines now in tired acceptance match that of the small second ones, which in turn read like the rhythmical amens heard in a black church. Death's escape becomes the poetic, and this is where prosiness serves Williams better than it did before: The poet making up his mind about it all is a more justifiably elongated process than anything “the shits” can allow.

A flat, cool, dawn light washed in on her: how pale her skin was, how dull her tangled hair.
So much of her had burned away, and what was left seemed draped listlessly upon her frame.
It was her eye that shocked him most, though; he could only see her profile, and the eye in it,
without fire or luster, was strangely isolated from her face, and even from her character.
For the time he looked at her, the eye existed not as her eye, his wife's, his beloved's eye,
but as an eye, an object, so emphatic, so pronounced, it was separate both from what it saw
and from who saw with it: it could have been a creature's eye, a member of that larger class
which simply indicated sight and not that essence which her glance had always brought him.

Often Williams’ short lines come where, conventionally, a new paragraph would be spaced on a typewriter or word-processor. But these late poems are made of stanzas. With a modal shift, the beginning of a paragraph leaves the one atop it behind the way no verse stanza quite manages to do. The stanza equals a double breath, a recuperative gentling; the prose paragraph, granted no such defined interlude, is simply another marker-cairn passed on its march.

March to where? To its end. The most common modern charge against fiction is determinism, but surely what galls us as much is that, after so much time spent with a novel, the damn thing so blithely just ends. Despite its illusory congregations of so many voices, authorial masks, its last word as a form is no more than the time it has demanded we spend with it. Poems, on the other hand, are entitled to picture themselves as pure Middles: Their last word switches on, waiting, as soon as the very first one is uttered.

If Williams’ long lines, held back by their instinct for embellishment, can't really approach prose, they nevertheless establish for themselves a laudably romantic capacity.

Ashley Brown (review date Summer 1995)

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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 one gets from Ovid, and since many of his poems are vignettes, the comparison makes sense. Like almost any poet since Wordsworth, Williams has had to compose his mythology out of his own experience, domestic or otherwise, with the usual risk that these personal details won't be sufficiently representative for his readership.

As a late-twentieth-century poet, Williams has learned from Proust how to make the power of memory operate to maximum effect. One of the finest poems in the collection is a new one, “Time: 1976,” concerned with exactly that theme: the power of involuntary memory. The situation involves nothing more than the poet, a woman named Catherine, and a small child, Jed. Bach's Musical Offering is playing on the phonograph; Catherine is coaxing the child toward a book: “Voilà le chateau, voilà Babar.” The relationship between the three is not exactly stated, but the situation is fixed in the poet's memory long after Catherine and Jed seem to have disappeared. Catherine's little phrase occurs three times in the poem and gives it a certain unity; at the end it goes. “Voilà Babar, voilà la vieille dame.” The following poem, “Time: 1978,” continues the effort to retain the fleeting past. Now there is even less to retain: Jed on Catherine's lap, and the child's new sneakers, the focal point of the central image. The poet is trying to perpetuate it by writing it down; his pen scratching on the paper is part of the larger scene, his “eyes rushing to follow the line,” exactly as the reader is doing.

Since Selected Poems is a substantial selection of Williams's work over thirty years, one can observe more variety in his oeuvre here than in some of his recent single collections. “Interrogation II,” another late poem, this one in five sections, has some interesting meditations in short lines. And “Villanelle of the Suicide's Mother” is a powerful formal poem that reminds one of Elizabeth Bishop's “One Art.” This poet has been honored in recent years, but he still is not as well known as he should be.

Thomas M. Disch (review date Summer 1995)

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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 night
on a bench in the Hundred and Third Street subway station until finally one day she vanished:
we regarded each other, scrutinized one another: me shyly, obliquely, trying not to be furtive;
she boldly, unblinkingly, even pugnaciously; wrathfully even, when her bottle was empty.

So begins “Thirst,” a poem that puzzles over “the dance of our glances” for six more stanzas that are notable less for their rhetorical energy (though it suffices) than for the poet's determination to imagine an inner life for a figure we all know and dread to think of. For [Mary Jo] Salter she would be a “ghost” among the crack vials of drive-thru slums; for [Marilyn] Hacker and [David] Wojahn a comrade at the barricades. For Williams she is one among literally hundreds of characters whom he has imagined as intensely as Pattiann Rogers has imagined her red-spotted toads.

The dramatic gift is not a requirement for writing good poetry. Some poets, like Ann Lauterbach, lack it entirely; their mental horizon stops at their own hairlines. Others, like Rita Dove, aspire to drama, but have no gift for speaking in other voices than their own, so that “characters” can speak only in the clockwork accents of received wisdom.

But those poets fortunate enough to possess a dramatic gift, like Williams or Robert Browning or Richard Howard, live in a larger and more blessed universe, a fact reflected in the largeness, psychological complexity, and variety of their oeuvres. “Thirst” is a single poem among some 150 that bulk out 279 pages of a book that is most notable for its social and discursive range. Poetry, Williams would seem to be saying, between his lines, can be about something. It can matter.

Keith Jeffery (review date 8 December 1995)

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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 strikes a more refined balance between social and individual responsibilities, weighing the interpersonal (for instance, “Some of the Forms of Jealousy”) with the intrapersonal (the title poem of A Dream of Mind).

To read Williams's work is to be aware of the continuous process of revision and annotation which is taking place. Texts overlap, and ideas of community are redefined—“It was as though some soft herd-alarm, a warning signal for the species, had been permanently tripped.” This type of extra-sensory networking is expressed with uncommon simplicity in “Interrogations II,” the most notable of the thirteen new poems included here: “The human soul, the soul (solidus) / we share, the single soul.” It's something of a stylistic departure, as is “Villanelle for a Suicide's Mother,” but his voices remain recognizable: the rewarding perils of fatherhood, a rephrased Classicism, the B-movie demise of one Sid Mizraki. The book ends with “Thirst,” in which the disappearance of a homeless woman closes a circle which began with Anne Frank: “holocaust: host on host of ill, injured presences, squandered, consumed. / Her vigil, somewhere, I know, continues: her occupancy, her absolute, faithful attendance; / the dance of our glances: challenge, abdication, effacement; the perfume of our consternation.”

Bruce Murphy (review date May 1997)

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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 fortifications of scarred, fearful self? …
How can I dream the stripping away of the petrified membranes muffling the tremulous heart?
I reach towards the heart and attain only heart's stores of timidity, self-hatred, and blame.


The heart, like a shell, is made up of layers of excretions, the dead matter that an amorphous, vulnerable blob excretes to protect itself. But the exposure of the layers is endless; is there anything really there? The poem might continue thus:

And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
Or when, under ether, the mind is conscious but conscious of nothing—

“East Coker”

Williams's similarity to Eliot comes as something of a shock. Beyond the anglophilia, conservatism, and orthodoxy that are so hard to swallow, there is an incredible transparency of mind. Williams is, in a way, what Eliot might have been if he had stayed in St. Louis. He is one of the least romantic poets now writing. He does not give us the dream in its first outburst, “spontaneously”; it appears, instead, as a moment in a larger dialogue of self-reflection. The dream is not given, but emerges into visibility only through the effort to comprehend what it means. Remarkably, Williams has brought philosophy back into poetry. Philosophy, of course, is more about searching for truth than finding it. The hackneyed exhortation to “show, don't tell” may have killed off a lot of bogus pontificating, but also led to a predilection for giving the experience in a white-hot lump, assuming that what we feel about it in the moment must be true. Williams, attending to “the murmur of multitudes” within, asks “How even tell who I am now, how know if I'll ever be more than the field of these interchangings?” If we cannot even know ourselves, that which we seem (but only seem) to be closest to, then the only intelligent attitude is skepticism, another quite rare quality that Williams shares with Eliot (“There is, it seems to us, / At best, only a limited value / In the knowledge derived from experience” he said in Four Quartets).

In the face of those “reflexes of self-protection,” the “certitudes and the hatreds,” what can we claim really to know? If we can't know the mind, how can we claim to know the world we know with it? Thinking is an endless journey; what we know may be only the falsehoods we have exposed and laid aside.

The long line could be seen as part of the modern confusion over (or abandonment of) the line itself as a significant unit. At some point, the line disappears into the sentence. The line, “What, though, would more require our love, our being loved, our vow of faithfulness and faith?,” in its “though,” makes use of the resources of prose. What is amazing is that the long line does have an economy; it is not just a form for the concrete to be poured into. While it is sometimes essayistic, and Johnsonian when it faces ethics, at other times it recalls quite different forebears:

The dance of our glances, the clash: pulling each other through our perceptual punctures;
then holocaust, holocaust: host on host of ill, injured presences squandered, consumed.


With repetition, assonance and alliteration, the long line expands into the taut net of Hopkins:

Disremembering, disremembering all now. Heart, you round me right
With: Our evening is over us; our night whelms, whelms, and will end us.

“Spelt From Sibyl's Leaves”

Williams's poetry is a thinking, rather than a talking, out loud. Very few poets develop a voice that is also a form. As with Dickinson, here it is a question not of how much can be crammed into the available space, but of how much the tool of the form can liberate from unintelligibility without breaking. Whether he is thinking about torture (“Interrogation II”), the possibility that a fly is the reincarnation of a dead friend (“My Fly”), or corrosive desire (“The Game”), Williams neither betrays his line nor is he betrayed by it.

Frederick Pollack (review date Spring–Summer 1997)

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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.

Difficulties arise when those feelings are insipid, contradictory, or embarrassing. If one role of the “complexity” of modern verse has been to reflect real ambivalence, another has been to conceal irresolution, emotionalism, and mental laziness. To make matters worse, both necessary and self-serving obscurities can inhabit one poem.

Some readers will object that it is old-fashioned to speak of “reality,” or to describe poems as being “about” anything. To this we may say that many if not most poets think their poems are about something, and this belief is patent in their work. Others will claim that a poem's reality need not be the world, but God, the imagination, a private vision or metaphysics. Such visions, however, manifest themselves in images drawn from the world. These are more or less strongly felt, and so array themselves along our axis.

The three poets [C. K. Williams, John Peck, and Debora Gregor] under review range from the otherworldly to the intensely worldly, and struggle variously to distinguish real from conventional (or convenient) ambivalence. …

Of our three poets, C. K. Williams is the most passionately mimetic: the one for whom breadth and intensity of response to the world are most valued and most linked. Towards the end of “Grief,” an elegy for his mother in his new book, he states his theme and credo:

grief for the flesh and the body and face, for the eyes that can see only into the world,
and the mind that can only think and feel what the world gives it to think and to feel.

To understand the challenges Williams confronts in The Vigil, we must place it in the context of his work. In Tar (1983), Williams perfected the long line and narrative structure that allow him to think and feel what the world gives him. In Flesh and Blood (1987), he accepted further discipline: the length of poems dropped from several pages to a consistent eight lines. (The long elegy for Paul Zweig is in eight-line sections.) The tone, at its best, continued to balance elegy and reportage: whether the self was the subject or observer of a story, guilt and anguish were subordinated to accuracy. A Dream of Mind (1992) began with a few page-long or two-page narratives, then astonished us with two tours de force: a long study of jealousy whose drama occurred at the subtlest psychological level; and the title poem, a study of imagination or consciousness at work. (The terms are not really distinct for Williams.) This poem raises two issues that remain important in The Vigil: the degree of control that consciousness has over itself, and its complicity in the evil it observes:

I dreamed I protested, I dreamed I cried out: I was mute, there was only an inarticulate moan.
What deceived me to think I'd objected when really I'd only cowered, embraced myself, moaned?
My incompetent courage deceived me, my too-timid hopes for the human, my qualms, my doubts.

We may note, in passing, a paradox. John Peck, the most “idealist” of our three poets—the most committed to imaginative transcendence and a metaphysics of process—feels he must invoke real life (artists’ biographies, ecological problems, etc.). Sometimes he does so superficially. Williams, our most “empirical” poet, feels he must observe (and be able to answer for) how he observes, and detours into his own idealism: a phenomenology of creativity. I believe that “A Dream of Mind” will be a classic of American poetry. But its presence athwart Williams’ work creates problems for him in The Vigil. Specifically: by increasing his self-consciousness it threatens the balance of subjective and objective elements—of elegy and reportage.

A sequence entitled “Symbols” is most obviously an attempt to extend the “method”—a term Williams plays with—of “A Dream of Mind.” One of these symbols is “Dog”:

Howl after pitiful, aching howl: an enormous, efficiently muscular doberman pinscher
has trapped itself in an old-fashioned phone booth, the door closed firmly upon it,
but when someone approaches to try to release it, the howl quickens and descends,
and if someone in pity dares anyway lean on and crack open an inch the obstinate hinge,
the quickened howl is a snarl, the snarl a blade lathed in the scarlet gape of the gullet,
and the creature powers itself towards that sinister slit, ears flattened, fangs flashing,
the way, caught in the deepest, most unknowing cell of itself, heart's secret, heart's wound,
decorous usually, seemly, though starving now, desperate, will turn nonetheless, raging,
ready to kill, or die, to stay where it is, to maintain itself just as it is, decorous, seemly.

If the final stanza were dropped and the others slightly extended, the poem would belong in Flesh and Blood. The last three lines negate the suggestiveness, the polysemousness, of the central image. That is, they impose a tone distinct from the tone of the facts, and they impose a meaning.

One speculates that Williams now has an “agenda” that clouds his intuitions. That agenda is to live up to “A Dream of Mind.” The genuine phenomenological detachment that poem possessed—the stepping back from one's own thoughts and feelings—is difficult, and the poet is tempted to force this detachment, to pretend to it. The results, in many poems, are 1) an impression of too little detachment, and 2) an imposed meaning, whose language hovers between those of self-analysis and moralism. Between half and two-thirds of The Vigil escapes the agenda. Escape depends on how intensely a subject reminds the poet of himself.

Among the “Symbols,” “Guitar” escapes:

For long decades the guitar lay disregarded in its case, unplucked and untuned,
then one winter morning, the steam heat coming on hard, the maple neck swelling again,
the sixth, gravest string, weary of feeling itself submissively tugged to and fro
over the ivory lip of the bridge, could no longer bear the tension preceding release,
and, with a faint thud and a single, weak note like a groan stifled in a fist, it gave way,
its portions curling agonizingly back on themselves like sundered segments of worm.
… The echoes abruptly decay; silence again, the other strings still steadfast, still persevering,
still feeling the music potent within them, their conviction of timelessness only confirmed,
of being essential, elemental, like earth, fire, air, from which all beauty must be evolved.

Here, the third, moralizing or psychologizing stanza grows from the rest. Identification is subsumed in description; it does not appear as an extraneous element. Breakdown, loneliness, abandonment, idealistic perseverance—these themes, while painful, are not personally painful. Williams is able to play with them, and they remain polysemous.

The book contains many similar contrasts. “Grief,” Williams’ elegy for his mother, is unsuccessful. We are given no sense of her personality or of their relationship. The pitiful vanity (or commendable pride) with which the dying woman applies her makeup inspires

grief for all women's faces, applied, created, trying to manifest what the soul seeks to be;
grief for the faces of all human beings, our own faces telling us so much and no more,
offering pain to all who behold them, but which when they turn to themselves, petrify, pose.

The poem, in other words, justifies its own generalization (and evasion) of particulars, not only of the person and the relationship, but of this grief itself. (One could say that a classical elegy—Milton's “Lycidas,” for example—also evades particulars; but “Lycidas” has many themes besides the poet's grief.)

In strong contrast is “My Fly,” a delightful quasi-elegy for the sociologist Erving Goffman, himself a keen phenomenologist of interpersonal relations. A big green fly has appeared above Williams’ desk and the poet imagines it's his friend:

Joy! To be together, even for a time! Yes, tilt your fuselage, turn it towards the light,
aim the thousand lenses of your eyes back up at me: how I've missed the layers of your attention,
how often been bereft without your gift for sniffing out pretentiousness and moral sham.

To “Grief” we can also juxtapose “The Coma,” dedicated “to the memory of S. J. Marks.” Marks apparently expressed in person the sort of self-blame that fills Williams’ poems. Phrases included “My character wound,” “my flaw,” “I've been discarded but I've earned it,” “My weak, hopeless, incompetent reparations,” “It's my fault, my arrogant doubt, my rage,” etc. In “The Coma” Williams battles poignantly with his late friend. The title implies not just Marks’ final physical condition but his blindness to

                                        the virtues his ruined past had never let him believe in,
his gifts for sympathy, kindness, compassion (…)
not “my malaise, my destructive neurosis”: let him have known for himself his purity and his warmth;
not “my crippled, hateful disdain”: let have come to him, in his last lift away from himself,
his having wanted to heal the world he'd found so wounded in himself; let him have known,
though his sorrow wouldn't have wanted him to, that, in his love and affliction, he had.

The point is not that Williams should be as kind to himself as he is to Marks. Rather, “The Coma” succeeds because of qualities lacking in more autobiographical poems. Chief among these are detachment from the subject, and a willingness to draw conclusions rather than impose them.

Another way of stating the problem is as follows: though Williams is interested in “Symbols,” his tendency is to allegorize, and the meaning of his allegories is himself. In “Hawk” (I wonder if Williams was thinking of Jeffers, and if so, what he was thinking), the dying, struggling bird makes him think of his own inadequacies (“I knew what to do, but, child of the city, I couldn't: there was no one to help me; / I could only—forgive me—retreat …”); then of his father's death and of similar emotions it inspired: “then, too, something was asked and I wasn't who I wanted to be.” Of course, such emotions are commonplace; but the poem, by evading a subject (the hawk? the father?), replicates without transcending the state it describes. In contrast, “The Hovel” elaborates one interesting symbol (an utterly decrepit hut and oppressed life), and universalizes a private emotion (“the true history I inhabit, its sea of suffering, its wave to which I am froth, scum”). There are also many poems that display selfless sympathy; they include the Marks and Goffman elegies, and “Instinct,” a heartbreaking portrait of a drunken, loving, teenaged father.

Apart from what I interpret as the challenge of “A Dream of Mind,” Williams in The Vigil is beset by being sixty. In a number of poems he looks back on life with his son Jed and his wife Catherine, regrets mistakes, recalls successes, gives thanks for joy and love. Some of these poems are “moving”—very much so—but they do not transcend their situation: they have the warmth and immediacy that non-intellectuals mistake for, or prefer to, art. My image of Jed and Catherine will remain defined by the eight-line “Two: Resurrections” in Flesh and Blood. This judgment is obviously as informed by a taste for irony and detachment as by any literary value; other readers might rank these poems differently.

But irony and detachment remain strong in The Vigil. “Insight” is a short phenomenological study in the style of “A Dream of Mind” or “Some of the Forms of Jealousy.” Its situation is almost the inverse of the latter's. A certain bemused and/or browbeaten female figure appears often in Williams’ poems. Sometimes she dies; in “Insight,” she perhaps escapes:

Such matters end, there are healings, breakings-free; she tells herself they end, but still,
years later, when the call she'd dreaded comes, when he calls, asking why she hasn't called,
as though all those years it wasn't her who'd called, then stopped calling and began to wait,
then stopped waiting, healed, broke free, so when he innocently suggests they get together,
she says absolutely not, but feels uncertain—is she being spiteful? small?—and then she knows:
after this he'll cause her no more pain, though no matter how she wished it weren't, this is pain.

This emotional precision extends from the personal to the political; as in Tar, moral outrage makes use of, rather than annuls, detachment and irony. “In Darkness” dissects a company goon who shot down miners in Harlan County. In six lines and one good metaphor “The Demagogue” does justice to its subject, and “Money” brings a vast abstraction home:

We asked soul to be huge, encompassing, sensitive, knowing, all-knowing, but not this (…)
not joy become calculation, life counting itself, compounding itself like a pocket of pebbles:
sorrow, it feels like; a weeping, unhealable wound, an affront at all costs to be avenged.

Finally, the poem I quote when recommending The Vigil is “Secrets.” This story of the sad life and cruel death of Sid Mizraki hearkens back to the narratives of Tar. Sid, formerly an acquaintance of the poet's, works for the city. Driven mad by his boss, he hires two burglars to kill him, paying them with rich people's addresses. “Then suddenly he was transferred, got a friendlier boss, forgot the whole witless affair”—but the thieves are caught and turn him in.

He got off with probation, but was fired, of course, and who'd hire him with that record?
He worked as a bartender, went on relief, drifted, got into drugs, some small-time dealing.
Then he married—“the plainest woman on earth,” someone told me—but soon was divorced:
more drugs, more dealing, run-ins with cops, then his unthinkable calvary in that alley.

The poet had liked Sid but had lost track of him. He learns of Sid's death the way he learns too many things: late. “[D]o people hide things from me to protect me?” he cries, before telling Sid's story. “Do they mistrust me?” Towards the end, addressing Sid's ghost, he says: “to come so close to a life and not comprehend it, acknowledge it, truly know it is life”—a line that, unusually for Williams, can be read two ways. Here the referral of another's experience to the self, and the search for its meaning in the self, is neither arbitrary, ungenerous, nor successful: “Poor poet, you'd tell me, poor sheltered creature: if you can't open your eyes, at least stay still.

Having long since recognized Williams’ greatness, I realize that, like other great poets—like Frost or Auden—he can appeal in different ways to different values. My own values should by now be clear. I want, not reportage at the expense of elegy, not mimesis that precludes idealism, but a convincing fusion. Peck, Greger, and Williams all strive for this fusion; given the difficulties, it is unsurprising that none of them is wholly successful. One of the difficulties is the obscurity of the “ideal” in our culture, its disappearance into subjectivism and sensibility. This obvious fact helps me rationalize my preference for “reportage” in poetry; poets can derive values from facts, though philosophers cannot. Such, at least, is the faith I sense behind Tar and Flesh and Blood.

Jamie McKendrick (review date 3 October 1997)

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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 reflection is righteousness being accomplished.” This goes further than the earlier poems by accusing consciousness, and implicitly Williams's own poetry, of complacency for merely not having averted its gaze. The poem then lurches into an inferno of empathy: “then holocaust, holocaust: host on host of ill, injured presences squandered, consumed.— / Her vigil, somewhere, I know, continues. …” If Williams sometimes hovers like a cleric at the deathbed, his calling as a poet of mortal anguish is not in doubt.

This collection also explores the distance as well as the proximity of the gazed-upon. His powerful version from Ovid records its belatedness: “In our age of scrutiny and dissection we know Deinira's mind better than she does herself.” This distinguishes Williams from the Adamic imagination of Whitman, whose long lines his own superficially resemble, in the way his work acknowledges the secondary manner through which at least in part we come to know the world and its violences with a knowledge that sometimes seems illicit. In this respect The Vigil exercises in its voyeurism a kind of vigilance. In “Fragment,” a murdered shopkeeper's last moments, relayed on the video system, are retold with excruciated empathy. “In Darkness” re-enacts a violent scene from “That old documentary about the miners’ strike in Harlan Country ….” Williams draws an explicit political analogy from the snarling strike-breaker who “posed, strutted … the way, now, so many in power assuming that same stance of righteous rectitude and rage / snarl their contempt at those who'd dare hold differing notions of governance and justice.” Yet even for those of us in sympathy with Williams's political stance, both the language and the shift of perspective (“the way”) have a kind of imaginative fatigue about them which suggest that his use of these longer lines may have outlived its creative purpose. This instant allegorizing is characteristic of the volume. In “Fire,” for example, the description of a burnt house is immediately translated for us: “Like love ill and soiled, like affection, affinity, passion, misused and consumed. …” Somehow the nouns are too cursory and indistinct to convince us, and the cadences too monotonously doleful. Williams has often been willing to sacrifice subtlety for intensity. The urgency and clamour of his style can be mawkish, but it also makes available to him as a writer tracts of the psyche which are overlooked by other poets. What is unusual is Williams's visceral empathy with others, with moments in extremis when the civilized mask drops and the human face with all its psychic lacerations and marks of woe appears before us.

In “The Game,” another kind of vigilance is seen, when, contemplating the outset of an affair, he asks “What difference if she was married, and perhaps mad (both only a little, I thought wrongly)”? The poem's last line, however, abruptly switches from acute psychological observation to a vertiginous, cosmic perspective: “beneath me a planet possessed: cycles of transfiguration and soaring, storms crossing.” Because of his almost forensic attention to detail, his heaping up of evidenciary images, the reader is inclined to believe these rhetorical shifts, and yet they also feel calculatedly intensified. “The Hovel,” however, though written entirely in this visionary register, finds an arresting emblem for the soul: “Slate scraps, split stone, third hand splintering timber; rusted nails and sheet tin. …” This is Plato's cave installed with the faulty plumbing of nightmares.

“My Neighbour” proceeds via an ungainly cortège of possessed gerundives that shelve into present participles: “my holding the door, her crossing the fragmented tiles, faltering at the step to the street / droning, not looking at me,” which all insist on the actual now of perception. And yet this poem, which brings together the poet's repelled surveillance of his neighbour and the memory of a relationship, requires of us a sudden leap of faith when, out of nowhere, “the god of frenzied, inexhaustible love says, rising in bloody splendour: Behold me.” Many of these poems functions as parables and exempla in which the meticulously recorded everyday occurrences are denuded and then hurtled into a realm where they become “cycles of transfiguration.” The redemptive urge behind these poems makes them compelling, but the manner in which their perspectives shift can seem like the arrival of a deus ex machina.

Ashley Brown (review date Autumn 1997)

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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 whose wide-ranging glance takes in a lot; the technique is almost cinematic, as in the first line of “The Hovel”: “Slate scraps, split stone, third hand splintering timber; rusted nails and sheet-tin.” This is energetic poetry; surely twelve of the seventeen syllables are stressed, and the auditory effect accompanies the vigor of the images. But a reader can hardly keep up this effect for very long, and perhaps it is just as well that the poem runs to only nine lines. It is rather different from such a cinematic poem as Auden's famous “Consider This and in Our Time,” where the blank verse easily carries the reader through sixty or so lines.

A number of the new poems are linked to those in the 1994 volume. For instance, we now have “Time: 1975” and “Time: 1972” to go along with the pair of “Time” poems carried over from the Selected Poems. Of these two, the 1972 “Time” has some lovely phrasing, but it lacks the particularity of the earlier pair, where the small child, Jed, and his mother Catherine are the center of attention in a memorable sequence. In “1975” we have Jed, only three weeks old and asleep but the focus for the meditation that concerns Catherine, her mother Renée, and “the music of the women's voices.” Catherine, to whom The Vigil is dedicated, is now identified as the poet's wife, a matter that was not altogether clear in the earlier poems. “Time: 1976” is the masterpiece of this group; Williams's gift for organization is most apparent here, and the power of memory operates at full effect. Perhaps Williams is following the late James Merrill in his series called “Days of 1964” and so on, in turn suggested by poems from Cavafy. In general, Williams's poems gain something when they do not depend on their Latinate diction as much as on their particularity.

Carol Muske (review date October 1999)

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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 caboose; Williams's argument for his expansiveness eschews what is didactic or rhetorical-egalitarian.

In fact, as Williams himself puts it in an essay in Poetry and Consciousness: “I wanted to write poems and imply existences that subverted—or at least, circumvented—conceptual fanaticism.” Further, “I was trying to find ways to embody political and social realities by structuring and figuring poems in ways that went beyond apparent limits or logical connectiveness.”

What he's struggling against, then, is “logic” in thought (and speech)—the template of preconception that is pressed onto our thought impressions to make them “whole.” Yet he's not necessarily interested in “stream of consciousness” or tiresome “subjectless” poems. There is always a unifying context in Williams. It's a matter of epistemology: “The lyric stance does not have to be passive.” And: “Lyrics worked by compression, omission. I wanted to expand.”

This is hardly an attack on the tight-lipped lyric; rather, it's a restructuring, a reeducating of the reader's attention, the reader's way of listening to the lyric, which includes consciousness of one's manner of reading—and of formulating thought. Like Miles and Wright, the vicissitudes of speech capture his imagination, but Williams is passionately loyal to one voice—the voice within the mind, the voice of consciousness. As he writes in Poetry and Consciousness: “Choosing to enact oneself in the first person implies a belief that the person so evoked will have a connection to reality in ways that are spiritually essential and productive, but in fact there is no way of knowing, no matter how scrupulously one tries to oversee one's solipsism, that the matters one is struggling with aren't ultimately idiosyncratic.”

Here we have Repair, the title implying less actual fixing or healing than human attempts to fix or heal, to restore. In “Last Things,” one of the most startling and disturbing poems in the collection, the “speaker” recounts how, while visiting a photographer-friend's darkroom, he discovers a “curled up photo of his son the instant after his death, / his glasses still on, a drop of blood caught at his mouth.” The reader is informed that the photographer-friend has published a book “to commemorate this son” and that it closes with a picture of the son taken the day before he died, with a caption identifying it as the “last photo of Alex.” Then Williams reaches out and draws the reader into the poem as a participant; he notes that he'll have to ask his friend's “permission” to “show this.”

If you're reading it, you'll know my friend pardoned me,
that he found whatever small truth his story might embody
was worth the anguish of remembering that reflexive moment

The “reflexive moment” is (presumably) the moment in which the man, who has photographed “everything” for “fifty years” and has grown used to “bringing reality into himself through a lens” could not stop himself from capturing unflinchingly his son's face in death.

Williams ends the poem abruptly, leaving the reader in a state of complicitous confusion. Why did the man take this picture and why does he keep it in his darkroom? The questions keep coming—without answers. No enormities about Art and Life are hinted at, yet the mind quickly moves to these issues. The “lyric” has been expanded to include all that lies outside the frame. And outside the frame of the “conceptual,” the “photographable,” the lens, is the unanswerable. So here is the image that “immortalizes” or haunts, the “repair” of art (or documentation) versus the random destruction of life. It hardly seems sufficient simply to attribute the photograph to a reflexive impulse. Williams knows this, and he knows the reader will go on, enlarging the frame of the poem. Why did he take that photograph? What can it mean and how can it alleviate or exacerbate his suffering? What is a furtive act, an unconscious act, or a deliberate creation of a “death mask”?

All of these poems—as figures of “repair”—confront impossible questions, making real healing seem unlikely. Yet Williams does believe in the saving experience of the poem. Like Miles and Wright, who introduce speech that “enlarges” the field, Williams gives us the poem itself as proactive diction, as the experience in itself. The questions we ask ourselves reading “Last Things” are part of the process of (as the title of another poem about three old women, Fates at the loom, has it) “invisible mending.”

We enter a poem about a frightened man on a city street, accidentally striking a beggar who has come up, unexpectedly, behind him to ask for change, we enter a poem (“King”) about an individual's experience with racism in the 1960s, we enter each outpouring of transformative reflection like unsuspecting rafters suddenly plunged into white water. Where are we going, where is the poem taking us?

No poem is meant to provide answers. Williams has an astonishing gift for creating poems that seem to be answers, seem to be large-lined explanations, meditations on the familiar, wide grassy vistas of contemplation, but that are in fact phenomenological questions that move as the mind moves, that are in fact forces that move us out of familiar contexts and into intense acts of attention. These poems demand everything of the reader, and thus they are political and social in the most profound reconfigurative sense. Williams intends nothing less than a change in how we perceive our world. With the poems of Repair, he seems to be asking something further: that we investigate ways to forgive and try to heal the past by finding a way to “end” what is endless. Or, as he puts it in “Invisible Mending,” describing the crones at their work:

And in your loneliness you'd notice
how really very gently they'd take
the fabric to its last, with what
solicitude gather up worn edges
to be bound, and with what severe
but kind detachment wield
their amputating shears:
forgiveness, and repair.

Elizabeth Lund (review date 10 August 2000)

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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 grandson, “Owen: Seven Days,” is a good example:

… when I
look into his eyes
darkish grayish blue
a whole tone
than his mother's
I feel myself almost
with a whoosh
into his consciousness
and processed
processed processed
his brows knit
I'm in there now
I don't know
in what form but
his gaze hasn't
faltered an instant

Williams's concerns, despite his sometimes difficult surfaces, are fairly universal: He writes of self-doubt, isolation, of trying to find his place in the world. Repair is about bridging the gap between what we are and what we want to be. It's about the lifelong process of accepting the face we were given instead of the one that will never be. From “Glass”:

Is how we live or try to live supposed to embellish us?
All I see is the residue of my other, failed faces.
But maybe what we're after is just a less abrasive regard:
not “It's still not there,” but something like “Come in, be still.”

Repair has some strong poems, including “The Train” and the lovely, lyrical “Droplets.” At his best, Williams is insightful, vulnerable, unblinking. He explores the hidden mental realms behind people's outward actions, and he leads us fearlessly behind the mind's closed doors. Often his poems are hauntingly stark, but the collection itself is a bit inconsistent.

At times the language becomes too abstract, too esoteric, as if the speaker can't get outside of his own thoughts. In other places the work becomes too self-absorbed, too unconvincing, as in the long poem “The Poet,” where Williams wonders about a long-lost acquaintance.

Some readers will be quick to say that Repair is not Williams's best book. What he says about love is a bit too pat, and his familiar themes have appeared in sharper, more memorable poems.

Repair does not invigorate as much as it could, but it does give ample glimpses into why Williams has become a major poet. His work, like an early-morning dip in icy water, does make the nerves and skin tingle.

Brian Phillips (review date 18 September 2000)

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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 proclamation: that in your dim kitchen,
your laundry, your bleak concrete yard, what you revealed of yourself was a fabulation;
your real sensual nature, veiled in those sexless vestments, was utterly your dominion.

Williams has a real skill for scrutinizing intentions, his own and those of the characters, real and fictional, who inhabit his poetic narratives. His best poems, including many from his successful collections of the late’80s and early’90s, limit themselves to a kind of privileged observation, confining their self-commentary to strict, short psychological underscorings. His worst poems, including some from Repair, reveal too much of themselves. When Williams restrains his urge to tell us exactly what his characters are thinking and exactly what his metaphors mean, he is capable of real sensibility; but when he gives full vent to his talent for perceptive explanation, he achieves the strange effect of obscuring his subjects beneath layers of clarification.

In this vein Williams follows his resonant, if verbose, description of cracking “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”—with an immediate aside about how the activity is also “a metaphor, like Kafka's frozen sea within.” And in “Archetypes,” he follows an obvious metaphor for the essential separateness of individuals—one sleeping lover jerking inexplicably away from the other—with an essay into the mind of the wakeful lover: “I felt again how separate we all are from one another, how even our passions / … heal only the most benign divisions.”

There is something a little patronizing about this sort of elucidation, as Williams shepherds the reader away from direct aesthetic experience and into the fold of comprehension. It would be one thing if he worked the process of understanding—of the mind coming to grips with meaning—into the unfoldings of his poems, so that the block of ice and the sleeping lover were simply two starting points for his poems’ real subject, which is thought; but he does not do this. Instead he seems to jump-cut between the subject of a poem and a conclusory commentary on that subject, sharply demarcating his cuts with phrases like “And I realized” and “Isn't it this way for us, too?”

Thought is almost never Williams's real subject, and his poems almost never take the shape of thought. Like Lowell, he is his feelings’ historian rather than their rhapsode, and the subjects of his poems are almost always exactly what he says they are: separation, loneliness, the memory of old wounds, emotional healing. (This last is the most common subject of Repair.) The sort of verse that Williams has undertaken to write is patient, somewhat pedagogical, and in love with clarity; many of his poems seem designed to do the work of the reader as well as the work of the writer, and one feels that they are meant to succeed by convincing that Williams's reasons for selecting a particular metaphor are sound, rather than by shocking the reader into feeling the way the poet has felt.

Thus a poem called “Depths” equates a child's fear of falling from his father's shoulders, where he sits looking down from the roof of a building, with a young man's fear of being disappointed in love:

Even now I feel a frost of fear
to think I might not have found you,
my love, or not believed in you,
but still be reeling on another roof.

But the single word devoted in the poem to the evocation of fear—calling the feeling a “frost”—evokes nothing; there is no fear in the poem, there is only the reference to fear, and the subsequent explanation of the equation. The metaphor, insufficiently expressed, sputters; the work of poetry, strictly speaking, has been left unfinished.

Williams operates within a narrow linguistic range and with a constricted formal imagination. As Repair shows, his register is casual, prizing simplicity; but Williams is no populist. His language is conversational rather than academic, but his range of reference is often quite the opposite. He uses the diction of common speech to describe simple events and narratives, but his simple narratives often allude to sources ranging from Greek mythology, one of his favorite sources for metaphor, to English Romanticism and the work of the French symbolists. His line recalls Whitman and Ginsberg in length and shape, and his delivery recalls the uncluttered, easy manner of Elizabeth Bishop (I can imagine a Williams poem beginning “I caught a tremendous fish”), but his influences are in some ways as European as they are American. His work reflects the moral self-questioning of Herbert, the plain-spokenness and the yearning toward nature of Wordsworth, the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart of the later Yeats.

Like Yeats, Williams takes the responsibilities of verse very seriously. He is dedicated to its ardors rather than to its pleasures, which may explain his exegetical inclination: if he ensures that the reader understands what he means in a poem, he has saved his work from the threat of self-indulgence. And yet he often indulges his reader, glossing every potential difficulty, and in this way he leaves his reader curiously vacant of ardor. In “House,” Williams begins by introducing his metaphor, the reconstruction of a ruined house around its existing frame:

The way you'd renovate a ruined house, keeping the “shell,” as we call it, brick, frame or stone,
and razing the rest: the inside walls—partitions, we say—then stairs, pipes, wiring, commodes,
saving only … no, saving nothing this time; take the self-shell down to its emptiness, hollowness, void.

There is skill in that procession of nouns indicating absence—from emptiness through hollowness to void, from simple absence through essential absence to nothingness. But the passage's self-conscious flirtation with the diction of the renovating workmen (“shell,’ as we call it … partitions, we say”) is distracting, and already the not-terribly-complicated metaphor is receiving authorial explanation (“the self-shell”).

In the second stanza—the finest stanza in the poem and one of the finest passages in Repair—Williams enacts the demolition of the house, getting down to the essentials beneath it:

Down to the scabrous plaster, down to the lining bricks with mortar squashed through their joints,
down to the eyeless windows, the forlorn doorless doorways, the sprung joists powdery with rot;
down to the slab of the cellar, the erratically stuccoed foundation, the black earth underneath all.

The lively description in this stanza (the mortar squashed through the joints of the bricks, the joints powdery with rot) is perfectly clear on its own; the Yeatsian clearing-away of the rotten and the ruined, and the rediscovery of the black earth on which the “self-shell” rests, requires no further elucidation.

But in the third stanza, Williams acts like one of those eyeless windows, and makes things utterly transparent:

Down under all to the ancient errors, indolence, envy, pretension, the frailties as though in the gene;
down to where consciousness cries, “Make me new,” but pleads as pitiably, “Cherish me as I was.”
Down to the swipe of the sledge, the ravaging bite of the pick; rubble, wreckage, vanity: the abyss.

The “surprise” in this stanza is that the black earth does not represent, as the nature-image often does in this kind of poem, the desirable or the good, but rather the “ancient errors” on which, in this poem, the self is grounded. But why not make this assignation a subject for portrayal, rather than for explication? Why not describe the black earth in such a way as to make its function clear? Why zoom abruptly out of the metaphor at the start of the third stanza into an explanation of what it means, only to zoom as abruptly back into it at the close of the poem? After all, this kind of house is old as the hills—it was familiar to Shakespeare (“O, what a mansion have those vices got, / Which for their habitation chose out thee”) and to Descartes, who devoted a long passage in the Discourse on Method to a metaphor equating home reconstruction and philosophical self-improvement.

When it is incorporated into aesthetic experience, of course, the authorial negotiation of metaphor has an ancient and serious history in English poetry, both in its disclosures (the Everyman tradition, Spenserian allegories, Petrarchan love-conceits) and in its concealments (the Anglo-Saxon kenning, the metaphysical tangles of Donne and Herbert). Williams is often acutely aware of the poetic traditions that precede him—his poem “The Island” alludes to Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Yeats, and Hopkins in just over a page—but his lapses of metaphoric rigor never seem figured into any such tradition. He seems to feel that his poems require their mini-commentaries in order to make their point, as though making a point were, well, the point of a poem.

It does not help that Williams's long, wordy line and his occasional looseness with language imply a prose style as much as his compacted multisyllabics and his occasional care with language imply a poetic style. Consider the opening of “The Poet,” from Repair, and see if you can guess where the line breaks should go when it is transcribed in prose:

I always knew him as “Bobby the poet,” though whether he was one or not, someone who lives in words, making a world from their music, might be a question. In those strange years of hippiedom and “people-power,” saying you were an artist made you one, but at least Bobby acted the way people think poets are supposed to. He dressed plainly, but with flair, spoke little, yet listened with genuine attention, and a kind of preoccupied, tremulous seriousness always seemed to absorb him.

Compare this character sketch, written in Williams's “poetic” language, with a similar sketch from Williams's affecting new prose memoir, Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself:

I remember them dancing like that at their fiftieth wedding anniversary party: everyone's watching them, they both look dashing. My mother has on a beautiful new dress, and she's just beaming with pleasure, as though my father had just wonderfully surprised her with some new step, and my father looks, unless you'd known him before, healthy, physically impressive, tanned, graceful.

The styles are virtually indistinguishable, with the same reliance on long sentences made up of many short clauses, the same use of rhythmic punctuation, and the same dependence on strings of adjectives and adverbs to carry descriptive freight (“plainly, but with flair”; “healthy, physically impressive”).

Of course, there may be something slightly unfair about invoking this likeness between prose style and poetic style critically, simply because to do so is to ignore the work of the line break as a material component of the poem. If the basic difference between poetry and prose is not a difference in attitude, subject, or rhetorical register, then there is nothing reductive or lazy about identifying it as material, formal, or even typographical. The mere presence of the line break, with the pressure that it places on language, can imbue a block of text with aesthetic possibilities that are vastly different from those available to the same text written with no line break. A great many extraordinary poems would seem as bafflingly unpoetic as Williams's, if they were written out as prose: “As the cat climbed over the top of the jamcloset, first the right forefoot, carefully, then the hind, stepped down into the pit of the empty flowerpot.” In the same way, it may be that Williams's particular use of line breaks in that passage from “The Poet” transforms it in some way, or distinguishes it aesthetically from its prose incarnation.

The question, then, is to what effect Williams's line breaks work. Here is the passage written with his lineation intact:

I always knew him as “Bobby the poet,” though whether he ever was one or not,
someone who lives in words, making a world from their music, might be a question.
In those strange years of hippiedom and “people-power,” saying you were an artist
made you one, but at least Bobby acted the way people think poets are supposed to.
He dressed plainly, but with flair, spoke little, yet listened with genuine attention,
and a kind of preoccupied, tremulous seriousness always seemed to absorb him.

A few things are immediately obvious. There are three stanzas, each containing a single sentence of the prose fragment, so that three of the six line breaks occur after a period. Two of the remaining three occur after a comma, at a natural moment of pause. The remaining break, that separating “saying you were an artist” from “made you one” in the middle stanza, is the only standout, balancing a moment of gentle wit across a break that works elegantly to maintain the line-length insisted upon syntactically elsewhere in the poem. Other than in that middle line, the breaks seem primarily organizational, gathering large thoughts into sentences preserved as individual stanzas, and breaking those large thoughts in half at moments indicating subtle shifts in subject: the third stanza, for instance, is devoted to the physical description of Bobby the Poet, and separates the idea of Bobby's “preoccupied, tremulous seriousness” from the shorter characterizations grouped in the previous line.

This is a clear-headed and efficient way of presenting ideas, but it cannot be said to have much of a felt impact on the aesthetic experience of reading the poem. Apart from the break after “artist,” the lineation feels designed mainly to separate elements of the subject into segments of equal length; but given that the line breaks fall after punctuation in almost every case, the lineation does not even have a pronounced effect on the rhythm of our reading. And given that the poem's style so closely resembles Williams's prose style, and that it is actually somewhat ungainly in any form (“those strange years of hippiedom and ‘people-power’”), one wonders why it was not written in prose to begin with, where it would at least not find Williams violating his own commandment that poets must “live in words, making a world from their music.”

This complaint can be made about every long-lined poem in Repair. Even when Williams summons impressive language (“the nail which is the axis upon which turns the brutal human world upon the world”), and even when he writes about chaos, pain, or fear, his lineation is almost always the whisk broom of his consciousness, sweeping his thoughts into well-proportioned piles. From time to time he does experiment with other deployments; occasionally there are poems with far shorter and more frequently enjambed lines, whose enactment of spectacular violence in agitated verbs and adjectives recalls Ted Hughes, Geoffrey Hill, and the school of the Anglo-Saxon Awfuls:

Furiously a crane
in the scrapyard out of whose grasp
a car it meant to pick up slipped,
lifts and lets fall, lifts and lets fall
the steel ton of its clenched pincers
onto the shuddering carcass
which spurts fragments of anguished glass
until it's sufficiently crushed
to be hauled up and flung onto
the heap …

These lines (from “Shock”) are virtuosic—but even here Williams covertly relies on clausal organizations (onto the shuddering carcass / which spurts fragments … / until it's sufficiently crushed) to spruce up the wreck.

What happens when Williams weds his explicit, precise self-explorations to unadorned prose? In recent years he has tried the union twice, first in 1998 with the loftily titled and mostly unlofty book of essays Poetry and Consciousness, and now with his memoir. In some ways, Misgivings is Williams's most satisfying book. It is written in a form (short, tightly focused chapters, each dealing with a particular memory or observation) and about a subject (his parents, whom he calls “the conspiracy that made me who I am”) to which his talents as a writer—even his talents as a poet—are perfectly matched. In his memoir, Williams plumbs few deep truths, but he emerges as one of the most authoritative psychologists (or pop-psychologists) in contemporary prose.

Many of the poems in Repair are also about Williams's parents; but the very sobering Misgivings seems to undo the argument of many of those poems. The most commonly sounded theme of the poems is that love, however painfully, heals psychological wounds; but in the memoir, love inflicts more psychological damage than it mends, and the emphasis is squarely off the mending—characters barely have time to forgive one another before they die.

The précis is simple: Williams's father, an egocentric businessman, hardens with time and loses touch emotionally with his wife, a long-suffering, narcissistic housewife, and poet son, leading to complication and to confrontation documented in plentiful detail. Williams's method is to sketch scenes based on memories of his parents, both now deceased, and then to question them sharply. The resulting forays into the interrogative mode sometimes become overlong, query piled upon query with towering abandon:

My father's oath never to say he was sorry: what does it mean when you decide you'll never again, to anyone, even to your wife, even to any of your children, apologize, about anything? Is it an ethical decision? Something that comes out of a long consideration of moral necessities and imponderables? Is it the logical conclusion of one's vision of a cosmos which includes self, beyond-self, other selves, and a God, or some semblance of a God? And how does one arrive at a conclusion so coherent and compelling that anything else seems a positive affront to your belief system?

Or is making such a decision, a resolution of such inclusiveness, more of a psychological realization? The perception that when one wounds or offends someone else, there's already pain in having to admit that you have, and an apology would only add to the total quotient of misery between offender and offended?

Or does it have something to do with the sense of one's self-making, with coming to believe that self-creation isn't a continuing, indeterminate process, but that it has an end, comes to fruition and stops; that one can, must say, “I'm finished, the identity I have evolved is no longer open to negotiation, change is no longer an option”?

No, no, no, no, yes, arrogantly, and no, the reader thinks; but Williams never offers an answer, preferring instead to explore nuance through the sheer accumulation of perplexity. This threatens to become tedious, and by the end of the book, it does; even if the sifting ambiguities are a welcome change from the overexplanatory poetry, we eventually want a resolution.

As the book progresses, however, Williams creates an increasingly vivid portrait of both parents, who become fully realized and plausible human beings; and it is impossible to deny that, in this way he handsomely fulfills the mandate of descriptive memoir. When he leaves his questioning behind and focuses on narrative recollection, Williams often finds little diamonds, brighter and more instantly right than the little discourses in the poetry: “When I picture my father on my horse, inelegant and graceless, it comes to me to think of him in a car as well, because there he was another person entirely.” This goes on:

My father is wearing a suit and the business hat he still sported in those days, and he drives with a deft, athletic, unselfconscious ease. As he does, he peels an orange—his breakfast—manipulating the steering wheel with the delicate pressure against it of one slightly raised knee; the fingers of his right hand curve and without him looking at the fruit his nails insert themselves into the skin at precisely the most efficacious point for it to be cleanly stripped, then he throws out the peels and segments the orange, one section at a time going neatly into his mouth.

Passages such as this are lovely to read, and they are even helpful in life; and when Williams writes, just a few sentences later, that his father's failing vision made him a nervous and accident-prone driver in his old age, the effect is chilling. Let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come.

It is a small luxury to watch a writer construct character as skillfully as Williams does at these moments, and the narrative is sometimes very moving. But it is weirdly static as well. The book is not a novel, and so it lacks a well-shaped plot. Williams has tried to circumvent this difficulty by flashing quickly between scenes, but once the characters are created, they do little that is exceedingly interesting to watch. So the pleasures of the memoir are mainly incidental pleasures, taken from brief moments of life made visible, such as the description of the father eating the orange. In this way, oddly enough, the pleasures of Williams's prose are poetic pleasures. Just as Williams's poems often tailspin into the prosaic, his writing comes to life poetically when it stretches out in the (comparative) aesthetic relaxation of prose.

This is interesting, because aesthetics is precisely what seems to be at stake in a great deal of Williams's writing, or rather a sort of uneasy truce with the idea of aesthetics that Williams feels continually tempted to break. Especially when it comes to his poetry, something in Williams's mind seems to distrust the idea that what he says should be judged by how he says it; that expressive quality, rhetorical power, formal ability, metaphorical aptitude, and linguistic artfulness might be called upon to establish his themes or be seen as primary to his subjects. His poems often seem determined to test the limits of aesthetic duty, as though Williams wants to see just how un-aesthetic poetry can become and still be poetry. The result is his tendency toward clear, discursive language and heavy explanation. It may be impossible, he seems to be saying, to write a poem about lovers that does not become a metaphor for love; but at least I can explicitly unmask the hidden term of the metaphor, and leave no doubt as to what I mean. In the end, this is an artist who deeply mistrusts art.

The problem that haunts this verse is that aesthetic complexity may be the first (and even the only) absolute requirement of successful poetry. Largely because of the pressure exerted upon language by the inescapable sectionalizing of the line break, it is impossible for a poem to be successful unless it is first aesthetically successful, no matter how smart, important, or personal its ideas and themes. Kant could not have been a poet; and there are great poets who have produced poems with very little to say. At some level, Williams seems to know this: his preoccupation with poetic metaphor is a concession to aesthetics not found in the prose. Yet the poems chafe against it; they ask to be admired for the seriousness of their content rather than for the achievements of their structure and their diction.

Williams is a trenchant observer and a dedicated examiner of mind and motive. But those qualities are not, by themselves, sufficient to the requirements of poetry. This may be why his memoir seems so much more actualized than his verse. The form of memoir is aesthetic only at second-hand; its art is merely the blush of the historical. Here, instead of resisting the generalizing aesthetic essence of his form, Williams is free to give the particular truth the weight that the particular truth always seems to warrant in his mind. Instead of balancing art with exegesis, and burdening painted ornament with skeletal organization, he is free to give full rein to his analytical abilities, employing art at his discretion to enliven and to illustrate his argument, and to keep his readers reading.

At one moment in his memoir, Williams writes that

I'm writing of my parents as though they were emblematic of something, as though there were some aura of meaning about them that transcended the small stories—and I realize they are small stories—that contain them.

This simple, frank, admission is one of the saving graces of Williams's book. There are moments, and registers of speech, for which poetry is unnecessary. Sometimes just being honest is enough.

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