Flesh and Blood

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1748

C. K. Williams is one of the foremost practitioners of a brand of poetry that is in many ways indistinguishable from prose. This status does not make him an outcast—far from it. Instead, he is working in a paradoxical mainstream of American poetry, a stream that goes back to Walt Whitman and flows through the work of such representative twentieth century figures as William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, and John Ashbery. These figures, and others, have helped to define—by practice more than precept—a literary form that still wears the label poetry but bears few of the traditional characteristics of that genre. By stripping his work not only of patterned sound and rhythm but also of concrete imagery and typographical play, C. K. Williams dares one to discover just what the essence of poetic expression may be.

Each poem in Flesh and Blood is eight lines long, apparently a severe discipline, but the lines themselves average twenty-two syllables—far longer than the lines in any established form of versification. In fact, on the page, these poems require sixteen lines of type, because each line is so long that it needs to have its last few words tucked underneath the margin-busting opening thrust. The typical specimen, then, is perhaps 176 syllables long, against the 140 of a standard sonnet.

As readers turn the pages of this collection, they confront four heavy and equal blocks of type on each pair of facing pages. This vehicle—or grid—is an equivalent, in a prose mode, to the long stanza of verse. Williams’ long lines, and longer sentences, fight off any further resemblances to traditional poetry—or do they?

One consequence of the Romantic revolution in English poetry was to usher in an age of the lyric: a (usually) short poem of emotional intensity that slowly usurped the whole space of poetry at the expense of narrative and meditative types. The novel emerged as the dominant narrative genre, and meditators were left the prose essay. The emotive qualities of lyric poetry were, for a long time, connected to its ancient association with song and music, but just as characteristic is the lyric’s special way of focusing experience: its ability to crystallize and personalize moments of feeling, perception, thought, or memory. An intensity of concentration in response to what the world has to offer became the lyric’s special domain, the response more essentially the subject than the stimulus for the response. In recent criticism, this area of response has come to be called “affect,” defined as the conscious, subjective dimension of emotional feeling separate from any physiological change. The focus on affect, in the utterance of the speaker as transferred to the experience of the reader, became the hallmark of the lyric, even as the mnemonic, structural, and decorative aspects of poetic art fell away. As affective writing, then, Williams’ work remains lyrical, even as he pushes out toward the flexuous manner of prose, even as he wanders into discursive uses of language and into long patches of abstract diction.

Rhetoric and syntax, as Jonathan Holden has observed (in The Rhetoric of the Contemporary Lyric, 1980), have become the communicative heart of much contemporary poetry, and it is in these terms that the poetic art of C. K. Williams is best understood and appreciated. The devices of persuasion and sentence construction, along with the framing or focusing activity of each poem, need the kind of careful analysis one is accustomed to giving to meter, line break, imagery, sound patterns, and figures of speech.

At one extreme of Williams’ practice is a poem such as “Dignity,” a poem that syntactically rolls on, accumulating clauses and phrases until it comes to rest at its only and final period. There are a number of poems like this one, poems that build by refinement and qualification of an observation or an idea, capturing in their hesitations and modifications the very process of a subtle mental and emotional instrument struggling to register its experience. A mobile intelligence that looks closely at everything and at its own responses finds everything hard to pin down, and yet the act of trying to pin things down—the process—is what is most sharable. Williams is most successful in such endeavors, though a stretch of these poems can wear out a reader. His twisting sentences remind one of the style Henry James used in novels such as The Ambassadors (1903), works in which the same kind of restless scrutiny of experience and reflection occurs.

Williams is able to adapt his instrument, his own book-length convention, to a number of purposes. Some of his poems could find their way into a collection of short short stories. They read like story treatments waiting to be fleshed out but are confined by the eight-line regime to suggestive essentials. “Will” is one such poem, and it is followed by “Pregnant,” a canny character sketch waiting to be elaborated in a plot. (In many ways, the whole of Flesh and Blood reads like a poet’s novel, an unplotted series of illuminations of the speaker’s psychic territory.)

Other poems are given over to scene painting, meditation, or dramatic outlining. Indeed, almost every one of Williams’ poems, freed as they are from verse anchors, rushes off to embrace another genre. In this way, the writer seems to keep asking—where are the boundaries? Is this poetry? Dose it really matter what we call it?

Flesh and Blood is divided into three sections. The first section, which comprises two-thirds of the book, displays the wide range of Williams’ subjects in a surprisingly random fashion. Although every so often, two poems are placed consecutively for their obvious relationship, such as “Drought” and “End of Drought,” more frequent is the habit of arranging by contrast. Williams’ pages look as though they hold stanzas or units in a long poem, but the sense the reader gets is like that of looking at a collage in which there is no overriding figure. Since the material would easily lend itself to larger thematic groupings, one must assume a purposefulness on Williams’ part. Perhaps he did not want the impact of individual poems lost in arrangements that would link them together. When the reader does come across companion pieces (“Alzheimer’s: The Wife” and “Alzheimer’s: The Husband” or “Snow: I” and “Snow: II”), the paired poems offer an assurance, like road markers, that the traveler is making progress.

In the second section, sequences prevail and no poem stands alone. It is difficult to tell if the individual poems were written as parts of a planned sequence or if the sequences were arranged retrospectively. In any case, some of Williams’ most attractive work is here. The accumulating observations around a central idea or image give Williams the room that the single poem does not, and the workings of his imagination benefit from this opportunity for dilation. The six-part sequence in which each title begins with the word “Reading” reveals Williams’ healthy sense of humor. The sequence turns on the centrality or marginality of the act of reading in a series of settings dominated by other activities and concerns. It is a powerful stretch of social satire.

The other sequences—“Suicide,” “Love,” “Good Mother,” and “Vehicle”—have a richness of observation and compassion that does not emerge anywhere near so fully in the independent poems of the first section. “Love” in particular is noteworthy for the range of tones delivered and styles acutely rendered. Williams’ special success with these sequences leads one to hope for an even more extended effort, and the third section fulfills that expectation. “Le Petit Salvié,” an elegy for Paul Zweig in eighteen of Williams’ characteristic eight-line passages, answers any remaining questions about the expressiveness of this prosy poetic vehicle. It is among the most powerful sustained efforts of its decade.

Like the classic elegies of Western tradition, “Le Petit Salvié” takes the occasion of a particular loss and transforms it into a meditation on the sources of life’s meaning. Though details of setting, character, and relationship speak of Williams’ deep ties with Zweig, the questions raised by his dear friend’s death are the old questions. The theme, as ever, is the movement of Williams’ own intelligent heart from grief to something larger that lets the grief go. Williams tries to reject the notion of an afterlife, one traditional consolation, but his feelings are ambiguous. On the one hand, he insists that “Redemption is in life” and that “we’re compressed into this single span of opportunity/ for which our gratitude should categorically be presumed.” On the other hand, these honed utterances on the eternal here and now go stale as soon as spoken: “this without conviction, too.”

The poem embraces memories of time shared overcoming the inevitable jealousies that two talented poets, however friendly and supportive, would feel toward each other: the mutual need for admiration, the mutual “suggesting and correcting and revising,” and the “tellingly accurate envy sublimated into warmth and brothership.” All this is lost to Williams now, but in another sense it is never to be lost.

“Le Petit Salvié” is an astonishing performance, the other side of the prideful masculinity and urbane wit expressed in dozens of other poems. Not that it is Williams’ only poem of the heart—far from it. Flesh and Blood shows a compassionate man’s reactions on numerous occasions. In many of these cases, however, one suspects that Williams is exercising compassion for the sake of making a poem. Here, the poem is the inevitable result of feelings; as Walt Whitman put it (in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”): “Death’s outlet song of life.”

The C. K. Williams of Flesh and Blood is no longer the angry young man of Lies (1969) or I Am the Bitter Name (1972). Mellower notes were introduced into Williams’ work when he turned to the long, prose line in With Ignorance (1977), and his art reached a fullness of vision in Tar (1983).

In Flesh and Blood, which was honored with the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, we have the work of a keen, mature intelligence striving for an impossible clarity and completeness. The rolling, qualifying sentences reveal that intelligence at work, heaping disclaimer upon assertion as the world is broken down into eight-line segments of experience and reflection. It is, finally, a shrewd formal combination of open-endedness and restraint that Williams has discovered to organize and release his prodigious talent.

The Poems

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 613

One hundred thirty poems make up Flesh and Blood, C. K. Williams’s fifth book of poetry and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. There are three parts to the book; it would not be far from the mark to say that the first ninety-six poems represent chaos, the next thirty-three order, and the final long poem harmony. The long first part contains individually titled stanzas, and except for a few pairs (back-to-back “Alzheimer,” “Snow,” and “Drought” poems), little at first suggests an arranged sequence. Instead, the themes are disparate and the poems stand alone.

The thirty-three poems of part 2 are also titled stanzas, but thematic keys are given as well. The first half of each title gives one of five themes: “Reading,” “Suicide,” “Love,” “Good Mother,” and “Vehicle.” The second part of the title, following a colon, renders the poem more specific, as in “Reading: The Gym” or “Suicide: Anne.” Of the five thematic groupings, there are six poems in the first, three in the second, ten in the third, and seven each in the fourth and fifth. With these themes in mind, the reader can identify poems in part 1 that correspond to themes in part 2. “Girl Meets Boy” and “Experience” are “Love” poems, while “Easter” extends the Good Mother theme to include a father. The “Vehicle” poems are speculative, and many poems in part 1 are also of this type. In “Herakles” and “Cowboys,” for example, Williams speculates on the nature of heroism in myth and movie. In part 2, “Suicide: Anne,” he explores the psychological ground of poet Anne Sexton.

Part 3 is a single poem of 144 lines, “La Petit Salvié” (the small redemption). It is an elegy to scholar and poet Paul Zweig, Williams’s friend who lived in France as a semi-exile, dead at age forty-eight. These final stanzas, less than a seventh of the book, rise to a high pitch both as a speculative instrument and as a “flesh and blood” record. (Flesh and Blood is dedicated to another Paul—Paul B. Williams, the poet’s father.)

One of the two most notable formal aspects of the poems is the fact that each poem in the book is eight lines long. Flesh and Blood therefore consists of 147 stanzas that appear very similar to one another and are usually presented 2 to a page. The other is Williams’s use of a very long poetic line—so long that it virtually always wraps around onto the next line on the page. Without a flexible line of great length, 147 eight-line stanzas could easily induce ennui, sinking the project. Williams, whose lines vary from 18 to 30 syllables and whose stanzas vary from 174 to 215 syllables (as an analysis of 15 stanzas shows), uses diverse kinds of language, varied themes, and a plethora of tones and moods to strike the emotional and intellectual quality of his verse. A typical stanza from Flesh and Blood (190 syllables) is one-third longer that a typical sonnet, and the extra room often gives the stanza-poems a wider and deeper reach.

The materials for the poems come via the poet’s eye as an observer of the human species. The best poems are the nonspeculative ones that show humans in situations with well-defined character motivation in postmodern settings. Linda Gregerson, writing in Poetry, sees the poems as “an impassioned essay on the moral life of urban humanity.” This characterization certainly holds true regarding the Good Mother series in part 2. Williams is able to show, with use of fine detail, the treatment children receive from unwitting parents. “Good Mother: The Plane” is an example; a mother is waiting for a flight, hours late, with a child in tow, and she “finally loses patience.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 687

Just before Williams’s first book (Lies, 1969) came out, Anne Sexton was asked to write something for the cover. Her words on the inside front flap describe the writer as “a demon” and a “master of metaphor.” One of Williams’s masterful metaphors is in “Suicide: Anne,” in which he uses the phrase “a badly started nail” to stand for Sexton’s emotionally aberrant life. This ingenious metaphor contains two braided truths as well as an impersonal exactness. An unstraight nail is incorrigible, an obdurate life unyielding. In “Regret,” the metaphor “in its cold coils” works at a similar level.

A metaphor sometimes waits awhile before it is completed in Flesh and Blood. The first poem, “Elms,” for example, becomes a metaphor for the last. The trees of the avenue are chain-sawed down until “naked facing buildings stare.” One at a time “the winds of time” destroy all living things. Zweig’s death, like the loss of the elms, exposes Williams to his unprotected thoughts. In stanza 15 of “La Petit Salvié,” he writes about “Clearing clumps of shrubs” from Zweig’s small, crumbling estate in the Dordogne at a time when Zweig is weak with fever. He tells of “sawing down a storm-split plum” and of “malevolently armoured maguey:/ their roots are as frail as flesh,” “The winds of time” become in stanza 2 “a perfect breeze” that washes across Zweig’s bed.

In “Sixteen: Tuscany” Williams likens young men drawn to his teenage daughter to bees. There are, among others, “two vacationing Sicilian bees.” The last line, “The air is filled with promises of pollen,” translates as possible romance, sexuality, and fecundity. Williams often prefaces a metaphor with the two-word device “the way,” as in “Hooks.” Here bus riders look at a pretty girl’s artificial hand “[t]he way someone would glance at [an] unruly, apparently ferocious but really quite friendly dog.”

Flesh and Blood is the third of Williams’s books to use the long line, which has developed a characteristic quality and has become his trademark. With his third book conversational and his fourth book narrational, his long line came to display a language that challenges the traditional view that poetry is concise, tight-knit, and economical. Particularly interesting is the use Williams makes of polysyllabic abstract words and long adjectival clusters. The result is a prosody heavy with unstressed syllables, capable of cadence and incantation, not far from natural speech (although natural speakers never show such lexical wealth), charged semantically to a degree usually found only in compressed verse forms.

In “Guatemala: 1964” phrases such as “implacable, picturesque aloofness” and “disconcertingly beyond suspicion” conjure more than they define. Williams seems to enjoy sewing strings of conjecture into sentence fabrics. In “Herakles” he wonders if the hero’s “feats and deeds be not exemplary but cautionary.” A prose writer might find the assonance unsuitable, whereas a traditional lyricist might complain of prosy, abstract diction. Williams is plainly exploring the limits and challenging norms.

“First Desires” contains such turns of phrase as “ardent arpeggios” and “chromatic dissonance.” An indigent person who traces texts in a public library, in “The Critic,” has “blood-rimmed eyes as rapt as David’s doing psalms.” The words “inconceivable capitulation,” in “Repression,” beg more questions than they pin down. “Reading: The Cop” describes an armed guard’s weapon as “a large-caliber, dull-black stockless machine gun,” and “Souls” says that carnival teddy bears are “unrelentingly filthy, matted with the sticky, sickly, ghastly, dark gray sheen/ you see on bums.”

Besides adjectival phrases and abstract diction, the poems include foreign words and phrases (usually French), European place names, musical terms (as in “Junior High School Concert: Salle Rosini”), and mythological names. The effect is that Williams takes his poetry in directions that seem to defy such traditional descriptions as narrative and lyric. Gregerson probably misses as many descriptive terms as she includes in her list of Williams’s genres: “didactic fables, documentaries, confessions, indictments, portraits, billet-doux.” The poems’ speculation, satire, sketches, and situations contain a broad spectrum of humanity: lover, child, parent, cleric, professional, laborer, aged person, invalid, criminal, politician, cultural leader, artist, and hero.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 19

Library Journal. CXII, May 1, 1987, p. 72.

The Nation. CCXLIV, May 30, 1987, p. 734.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, August 23, 1987, p. 20.

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